Most States Set Student Proficiency Goals for Reading and Math at Levels that Are Basic or Below Basic by the Standards of the National Assessment of Educational Progress

Washington, D.C. – The standards most states use to determine whether fourth and eighth grade students are proficient in reading and mathematics are set at levels that are equivalent to Basic or Below Basic skills under the standards set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – commonly known as “the nation’s report card.”

The results are contained in a new federal report – Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales: Variation and Change in State Standards for Reading and Mathematics, 2005-2009 – released August 10, 2011 by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) and written by experts with the American Institutes for Research (AIR).

There is a wide variation among the proficiency standards that states use. AIR researchers used a rigorous research and evaluation ‘mapping’ methodology that makes it possible for each state to compare the rigor of its standards with other states. By mapping states’ standards onto the NAEP scale, they compared the various proficiency standards used by states with the common metric of NAEP, using 2005, 2007 and 2009 math and reading assessments for grades 4 and 8.

The AIR authors noted that “the range of state standards continues to be wide: 60 to 71 NAEP points, depending on grade and subject. With such a wide range, a student considered proficient in one state may not be considered proficient in another.”

The report found that:

  • Most states’ proficiency standards are at or below NAEP’s definition of Basic performance, which is defined as showing a “partial mastery” of fundamental skills and knowledge. To be at the NAEP Proficient level, a student needs to show a competency over challenging subject matter.
  • Among the states that made substantive changes in their assessment between 2007 and 2009, most moved toward more rigorous standards.
  • Between 2005 and 2009, there were 79 cases where states reported changing the rigor of their standards for either reading or mathematics, or both. In 25 cases, the standards were more rigorous, in 14 cases they remained the same, and in 40 cases the rigor of the standards declined.
  • In grade 4 mathematics, the proficiency standards set by 42 states fell in the Basic range for NAEP, while seven were Below Basic. In Grade 8 mathematics, 36 states were in the Basic range, while 12 were Below Basic. One state – Massachusetts – was in NAEP’s Proficient range.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a statement about the report that said the “study shows that most states that changed their standards in reading and mathematics between 2007 and 2009 increased their rigor. Despite the progress, there is still much room for improvement in providing American students with a rigorous academic education that prepares them for success in the knowledge economy.”

In grade 4 reading, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey and Vermont had the four highest proficiency requirements, while Tennessee, Oregon, Georgia and Alabama had the four lowest standards. When measured by NAEP, however, the four highest ranked states qualified as requiring only a basic set of skills. Students meeting the state’s standards in Tennessee, Oregon, Georgia and Alabama possessed Below Basic skills using the NAEP standard.

In grade 4 reading, 15 states set standards for proficiency that were below the score for Basic performance on NAEP, while 35 states set proficiency standards that fall below the NAEP standard of Basic. In Grade 8 reading, 34 states set proficiency at the level NAEP considers Basic, while 16 states set their standards below NAEP’s Basic range.

The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act requires states to establish proficiency standards in order to assess whether states were making “adequate yearly progress” on raising student achievement. Since 2003, NCES has conducted research to compare the proficiency levels of NAEP and the states and allow comparisons to be made of standards across states.

The study is available on the U.S. Department of Education website and the AIR website.

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


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