Proficient in One State May Not Mean Proficient in Another (Never Mind the Global Economy)

As public debate over the use of Common Core standards in U.S. schools gathers steam, parents and policymakers need to know more about current proficiency standards for reading, mathematics, and science—and brace for some surprises.

These standards, used by states to measure student progress, vary widely—with the gap between states with the highest and lowest standards amounting to several grade levels. In most states with high pass rates, low expectations are to blame.

New research I undertook at AIR (International Benchmarking: State and National Education Performance Standards) compares state 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). Four findings deserve particular attention:

  1. States reporting the highest percentage 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Using international standards, Massachusetts climbed to 57 percent proficient, compared to 52 percent under its own standards.

State by state comparisons are also eye-opening. For the purpose of discussion, the report converts international benchmarks to grades, with a high of A and a low of D. 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+. (See chart below.)

To get these results, I 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. Then I compared the difficulty of performance standards across states by converting the state standards to the metric of TIMSS and PIRLS.

When the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law became law in 2001, states were required to show steady improvement in student performance in reading and mathematics, with the goal of having all students proficient by 2014. Each state had to set its own standards and define what “proficiency” was to mean. But in the years since then—unbeknownst to most parents and education watchers—the term has come to mean very different things in different states. That can’t be good for American students trying to prepare to compete nationally or globally for jobs requiring what proficiency tests are supposed to measure.

International benchmarking: State and National Education Performance Standards

Gary Phillips is an AIR vice president and Institute Fellow.