Education Performance Standards Vary Widely Among States, In Some Cases by Several Grade Levels

Washington, D.C. – Proficiency standards used by states to measure student progress vary widely – with the gap between states with the highest and lowest standards amounting to as much as three to four grade levels, finds a new study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR).

As public debate intensifies over the use of Common Core standards in U.S. schools, this study looks at the proficiency standards currently employed for reading, mathematics and science. It compares those standards with student achievement levels used in two international assessments – the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

“Residents of some states think their students are doing well because almost all of them are considered proficient,” said Dr. Gary Phillips, an AIR vice president and Institute Fellow. “This study shows there is considerable variance in state performance standards, with a wide expectations gap that most parents have no idea exists.”

When the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law was enacted in 2001, it required states to show steady improvement in student performance in reading and mathematics, with the goal of having all students proficient by 2014. Each state was responsible for setting their standards to measure and define the term “proficiency.”

Dr. Phillips examined the percentage of proficient students reported by the states in 2011 in Grade 4 mathematics and reading and in Grade 8 mathematics and science. He then compared the difficulty of performance standards across states by converting the state standards to the metric of TIMSS and PIRLS.

The findings include:

  • States reporting the highest percent of proficient students had the lowest performance standards. More than two-thirds of the difference in state success is related to how high or low the states set their performance standards.
  • The difference between the states with the highest and lowest standards is about two standard deviations – a statistical term denoting the amount of variation from the average. In many testing programs, a gap this large represents three to four grade levels.
  • The percentage of proficient students for most states declined when compared with international standards. In Grade 8 mathematics, for example, Alabama went from 77 percent proficient to 15 percent; Colorado from 80 percent to 35 percent; Oklahoma from 66 percent to 20 percent; and New Jersey from 71 percent to 50 percent.
  • Using international standards, Massachusetts climbed to 57 percent proficient from 52 percent under its own standards.

“Fifty states going in 50 different directions is not a strategy for national success in a globally competitive world,” said Phillips. “It may look good for federal reporting purposes, but it denies students the best opportunity to learn college-ready and career-ready skills.”

Phillips used international benchmarks to grade states by statistically linking state tests to the state National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), then linking national NAEP to national TIMSS or PIRLS data.

In Grade 8 mathematics, Massachusetts and Minnesota had the highest grades, with each receiving a B-. The lowest grades went to Alabama and Georgia, which received a D, while Connecticut, Illinois, North Carolina and the District of Columbia received a D+.

The full report, International Benchmarking: State and National Education Performance Standards, and a chart comparing state and TIMSS Grade 8 mathematics proficiency standards are available at

About AIR
Established in 1946, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of health, education, and workforce productivity. For more information, visit