State Education Standards Vary Widely

Washington, D.C. State education standards vary widely throughout the United States, which means that students with similar academic skills are being evaluated differently depending upon the states where they live, according to a study conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) for the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES).

The study, released by NCES on October 29, 2009, found that a large gap persists between the level of student achievement required by states with the highest standards and those with the lowest standards. Most of the variation among states on how many of their students perform at the “proficient” level is due to the difficulty of the state standards.

The complex analysis compared the various, independently set state proficiency standards with the common scale of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), using 2005 and 2007 math and reading assessments for grades 4 and 8.

“How high the bar for proficiency has been set varies considerably from state to state,” said the study’s authors, Victor Bandeira de Mello and Charles Blankenship, from AIR, and Don McLaughlin of Statistics and Strategies. “Students with similar academic skills in different states are being evaluated very differently. A student who is considered proficient in one state may not be in another state. This study provides a common benchmark to interpret state assessment results, and a needed link to compare results across states.”

The gap between the level of reading and math achievement required of students is large. The difference between the five states with the highest standards and the five states with the lowest standards was as great as the difference between what NAEP considers “basic” (or partial mastery of skills) and “proficient” performance on its national tests. That level of disparity was evident for reading and math in both grades 4 and 8.

States often set their standards below what NAEP consider the level need to show “basic” performance.

  • In reading, 31 states set proficiency standards for grade 4 lower than NAEP’s “basic” level, while 17 states are higher. For grade 8, 15 states set standards below and 32 states are above the NAEP basic point.
  • Only one state – South Carolina for grade 8 – sets its reading standard at NAEP’s proficiency level.
  • For mathematics, seven states set grade 4 proficiency standards below NAEP’s basic performance level, and eight states are below for grade 8.
  • Only two states – Massachusetts for grades 4 and 8 and South Carolina for grade 8 – set their standard above NAEP’s proficiency level.

States regularly report the percentage of their students who have scored proficient or above on state tests. But the study found that most of the variation between states, about 70 percent, reflects differences in the difficulty of state standards. States with higher standards had fewer students achieving proficiency, while those with lower standards had more students reaching that level.

States sometimes change their assessments, and the AIR study took those changes into account. Eight states showed significant differences between 2005 and 2007, the years studied, on grade 4 reading assessments, with half of those lowering their standards compared to the NAEP scale. All seven states that had significant changes in their grade 8 standards lowered them.

For mathematics, of the 11 states that had a significant change in their grade 4 standards between 2005 and 2007, six lowered and five increased them. For grade 8 math, of the 12 states with significant differences, nine were lowered and three were raised.

“This study provides an invaluable tool for state policymakers,” said Bandeira de Mello and Blankenship of AIR. “It will help them interpret their assessment data by providing a critical comparison and show them how changes they may make in standards move them up or down an achievement scale. For national policymakers, it allows comparisons across states and a way to evaluate consistency in state standards over time.”

The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act required states to establish proficiency standards in order to assess whether states were making “adequate yearly progress” on raising student achievement. But, with independently set standards, this new study shows that these benchmarks vary widely. NAEP assessments, known as “the Nation’s Report Card,” provide a national sample of 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 authors noted that the relative rigor of a state standard doesn’t necessarily translate into better student performance. They also acknowledge that state tests and NAEP assessments serve different, yet overlapping, purposes.

The study – Mapping State Proficiency Standards onto NAEP Scales: 2005-2007 – is available from the U.S. Department of Education.

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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