Saturday, August 27, 2005

Johnny Can Some States


Johnny can‚t read ... in South Carolina. But if his folks move to Texas,
he‚ll be reading up a storm. What‚s going on?

It turns out that in complying with the requirements of No Child Left Behind
(NCLB), some states have decided to be a whole lot more generous than others
in determining whether students are proficient at math and reading. While
NCLB required all states to have accountability systems in place, it did not
say specifically how much students should know at the end of 4th or any
other grade.

Some states have risen to the challenge and set demanding proficiency levels
for their students, while others have used lower standards to inflate
reported performance. Not only is the disparity confusing, but, perversely
enough, the states with the highest expectations often stand accused of
having the most schools said to be in need of improvement˜even when their
students are doing relatively well.

Because of such disparities, the states with the highest standards will be
tempted to lower their threshold for determining proficiency, especially
when NCLB teeth begin to bite. With the passage of time, states may be
tempted to race to the bottom, lowering expectations to ever lower levels so
that fewer schools are identified as failing, even when no gains are being

Because each state selects its own testing system and sets its own passing
scores, there is no direct way to compare the proficiency levels established
by one state against the others. However, NCLB does require each state to
administer the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to a
sample of students in 4th and 8th grade in reading and in mathematics.
Comparing the percentage of students achieving proficiency on state tests
with the percentage achieving proficiency on the NAEP suggests how demanding
each state‚s standards are.

For instance, if only 50 percent of a state‚s 4th graders are proficient by
the nationally determined NAEP standard, but the state claims proficiency
for 80 percent, then the state should be given an F for its failure to
establish high expectations for its students. But if a state with an
equivalent score on the NAEP says only 45 percent are proficient, then it
should be given an A for having standards that exceed even those of the

In practice, only five states˜South Carolina, Maine, Missouri, Wyoming, and
Massachusetts˜deserve the A grade. A lot more deserve Ds and Fs, the worst
grades going to Tennessee, Texas, and Oklahoma.

To help citizens of every state know whether their state is maintaining high
expectations for its students, Education Next plans to issue periodic
assessments of how the states compare with one another. Figure 1 shows
initial results for the 40 states for which both state and NAEP proficiency
levels are currently available. In the future, it will be possible to
compare all states with one another.

By reporting this straightforward, objective grading system, we hope to help
eliminate some of the murkiness that still prevails. It would be even better
if, as Caroline M. Hoxby recommends elsewhere in this issue (see „Inadequate
Yearly Progress,‰ page 46), the federal government issued its own grade for
each state.

Paul E. Peterson and Frederick M. Hess are editors of Education Next. Mark
Linnen provided research assistance.

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