International Benchmarking: State Education Performance Standards
National policymakers have recently encouraged states to adopt world-class education standards as a way for the nation to compete in the 21st century. However, high national expectations can never be realized if expectations across the states are wildly inconsistent and are extremely low in some states. By setting low performance standards, states commit the educational equivalent of short selling. Rather than betting on student success, the educators sell the student short by lowering standards. What the educator gets out of this practice is 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.
This report uses international benchmarking to examine the expectations gap between what students are expected to learn in some states and what students are expected to learn in others. This report assumes that each state’s expectations are embodied in the stringency of the performance standards it uses on its own state accountability tests. The state performance standards represent how much the state expects the student to learn in order to be considered proficient in reading and mathematics. Performance standards are used by each state to report adequate yearly progress (AYP) under current No Child Left Behind federal legislation. These standards are also used by the state to monitor progress from year to year, and to report to parents and the public on the success of the each classroom, school, and district.
In the examination of this issue, the proficiency standards in each state were compared with the international benchmarks used in two international assessments. These were the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). The international benchmarking not only provided a mechanism for calibrating the difficulty and gauging the global competitiveness of each state standard but yielded an international common metric with which to compare state expectations.
The overall finding in the study is that the differences in the stringency of the performance standards used across the states are huge. Although this gap in expectations is large, few policymakers are aware of it.
Additionally, in order to reduce the expectations gap, this report recommends that the current standard-setting paradigm used by the states be reengineered. Rather than deriving performance standards exclusively from internal state content considerations, the report recommends a new method for setting standards that is influenced more by empirical data. The Benchmark Method (Phillips, 2011) of standard setting starts with empirical data rather than ending with it. The Benchmark Method acknowledges that performance standards are fundamentally a policy-judgment decision (not just a content decision) and that these standards need to be guided by knowledge of the real world around us and the requirements that our students will face as they compete in a national and global economic and technological world. Content considerations are used to describe the performance standard, but content is not the primary driver of how high or low the standard should be. Instead, the benchmark is the primary driver in determining whether the performance standard is high enough to allow students to compete in a national and international context. The report recommends that the Benchmark Method of standard setting be used in the future if states function as a consortium with funding from the federal Race to the Top assessment program. After states adopt and implement the Common Core State Standards Initiative developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA), they will need to establish common performance standards. At this stage, the Benchmark Method could help guarantee consistently high, internationally competitive, performance standards.