States all over the map on defining proficiency

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

Posted on 10/29/10 • Categorized as Common Core standardsStandardized tests

By John Fensterwald – Educated GuessCalifornia is often praised for its “world-class” content standards, which define what students should be taught at every grade level. But when it comes to actual performance standards, defining what knowledge students must demonstrate to prove they’re proficient in math and English, hold the pat on the back. California falls back into the pack. 

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.


  1. There is a “law” about this phenomenon stated by someone that kind of goes: “The more real life consequences that are attached to certain kinds of data collection systems the more likely that the system will become distorted.” That’s by no means an exact quote, but it makes a good point about the inevitable influence of human nature. It’s akin the the tragic narrowing of the curriculum, particularly for children in economically distressed neighborhoods, and the systematic destruction of education for the whole child that has occured since the onset of standards and test driven “reform.” Diane Ravitch has already covered that far better than I could.

    The long time consequencxes of the “cult of data” will result in the same kind of  consequences that result from other kinds of cults. John K Galbraith wrote about this in his auto-biography. The growing influence of the statisical based school of economics (out of U of Chicago as I recall being a kind of Ayn Rand cult). These guys were bent on the systematic destruction of the New Deal. Galbraith realized that if they could keep public/policy attention focused on statistics/data/numbers/sreadsheets
    they could keep public/policy attention off of the devestating social and human consequences of undermining the social safety net.

    It is common practice for teachers to be handed a pile of statistics/data/numbers/spreadsheets re the standards tests at the first faculty meeting of the new school year.

  2. This is why I think testing vouchers is a small step to helping improve education.  Let parents choose whatever evaulation system they want.  And if enough parents find schools can’t provide what they want then we’ll have motivated parents to help change the system.  Just having parents think about how to spend a testing voucher would probably be a big change in the right direction.


    This is known as the Campbell Law, after the psychologist Donald T. Cambell (, p. 54)

    “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

    At the same time I hope we will remember that this is not a law of nature but an empirical observation of human nature. Campbell did not argue to avoid using social indicators but rather to be sensitive to their possible corruption and work to circumvent it. Potential corruption is present not only for testing, which teacher unions dislike, but also for measuring SES, student bilingualism, race, etc.  — that unions tend to cherish while conveniently forgetting about their potential corrupting effects. Anyone working in social sciences — or in politics — is familiar with it.

  4. Paul:

    There are currently several experiments in vouchers that have  gone on for decades. There has been no significant research indicating that students receiveing vouchers have higher achievement than students attending regular public schools. If there had been you can be assured the corporate media and right wing sound machine would have screaming the results from the roof-tops.

    Over the last couple of years the NCES has weighed in with a couple of studies (and this during the pro-voucher/charter  Bush Adminstration) showing-when adjusted for SES- voucher/private/charter school kids do no better (and in some cases do considerably worse) than regular public school kids. The highest performing school kids in the US are public school kids; that is, when you let those public schools behave like private/charter schools and screen their students. (I do not happen to support that policy and get in debates with colleagues from San Francisco who have one of these schools. I question the “ethics.”  They are comfortable with the outcomes. A tale for another day.) Of course, regular public schools in affluent areas are no slouches either.

    Another problem with vouchers is, there is no instance I am aware of where-in a democratic election-voucher initiatives have been supported by the public. The existing programs have been mandated by mayors, governors, or legislatures.

  5. Gary,
    I didn’t mean vouchers for a student’s complete education, I meant vouchers for testing.  If parents want NAEP testing let them choose that.  If another parent wants a personal evaluation let them choose that.  Whatever parents can arrange.


About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Secondary math teacher teaching math intervention, algebra 1, honors precalculus, and AP Calculus AB. I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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