Another example of the negative consequences of good intentions…such as NCLB, standardized tests, etc.
States all over the map on defining proficiency
California performance standards not most demanding
Except for a handful of states, led by Massachusetts, most states’ performance standards – including California’s – pale compared with those of high-performing nations such as Japan, South Korea, and Singapore in math, and Canada, Singapore, and some European nations in reading, according to a report this week by the American Institutes for Research. And the standards among the 50 states vary so much as to render the definition of proficiency all but meaningless.
By setting low performance standards, the authors write, states create “the illusion of high rates of proficiency, which have a palliative effect on public opinion and meet the requirements of federal reporting. What the student gets out of it is a dumbed-down education, with little opportunity to learn college-ready and career-ready skills.” And this could partly explain why so many high school graduates in California (about 60 percent) and other states end up taking remedial courses once they get to college.
The study underscores the importance of the Common Core standards in math and English language arts, which 37 states adopted this year. Two coalitions of states (California is part of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career) will be creating new assessments over the next four years with a common definition of proficiency, which will finally make comparisons of student achievement among states possible.
Meanwhile, many states will continue to fool the public with embarrassing standards of proficiency. The worst, according to the study, is Tennessee (a Race to the Top winner), where in 2007, 90 percent of students were deemed proficient in fourth grade math tests. Had those students been tested using international standards for proficiency, the success rate of Tennessee students would have fallen to 21 percent. Comparing results on theNational Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, a test given to selected students in every state, the report found that performance standards for Massachusetts fourth graders are higher than for Tennessee eighth graders.
Reporting requirements for the No Child Left Behind law have compounded the disparities, with some states lowering their performance standards to avoid sanctions for not meeting the federal government’s demand for increased proficiency rates. To its credit, California, by and large, has not done this. But its performance standards are not as high as those in Massachusetts, South Carolina, and about a dozen other states, based on fourth grade math and English tests.
Previous studies have compared performance standards, based on state results on NAEP. This study goes a step further, comparing or benchmarking states’ standards with performance standards on two international assessments, TIMSS (Trends in International Math and Science Study) and PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study). It showed that only Massachusetts had more students testing proficient on international tests in fourth grade math than on its own state tests. For all other states, students performed worse on international tests than on their own state tests – a reflection of the expectations gap.
In 2007, 57 percent of California students tested proficient on the California standards test. That would drop to 29 percent proficient based on the international performance standards. The 28 percent disparity is smaller than in other states with very low definitions of proficiency, such as Wyoming (86 percent proficient on state tests, 44 percent based on international standards) and Alabama (86 percent proficient on state tests, 26 percent using international performance standards).
In a competitive world, states should not be setting performance standards in a vacuum. They should be measured against what other nations’ students are achieving. A few states, such as Oregon, are beginning to recalibrate their standards with that in mind. California should, too.