Learning Curve: A troubling score gap

In a new report contrasting proficiency scores on state exams to federal tests, Georgia comes across as a very easy grader.

“States are setting the bar too low,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in response to the release Thursday of the study “Mapping State Proficiency Standards onto NAEP Scales: 2005-2007.”

The federal study compares proficiency standards of states using the results of the National Assessment of Education Progress — often called the Nation’s Report Card — as the common yardstick.

A national test given to select students in every state, NAEP is the only nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas.

Because students across the nation take the same NAEP assessment, state-to-state comparisons can be made.

“Far too many states are telling students that they are proficient when they actually are performing below NAEP’s basic level,” Duncan said. “At a time when we should be raising standards to compete in the global economy, more states are lowering the bar than raising it.

“We’re lying to our children when we tell them they’re proficient but they’re not achieving at a level that will prepare them for success once they graduate,” Duncan said.

The discrepancies between NAEP and state tests suggest one of two things: Either NAEP is too hard or state tests are too easy. Some critics contend that even high-scoring students in Norway or Korea wouldn’t impress on NAEP because of the rigor of the exam.

But shouldn’t Georgia students who do well on the state’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests score at least at the basic level on NAEP? Yes, they are different tests, but aren’t the fundamentals of reading the same?

“Proficient” on NAEP means a student is performing at the top levels of what could be expected for the grade.

Scoring at the basic level indicates partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work. Scoring below basic means the student lacks even partial mastery of the subject.

It bothers me that Georgia students deemed proficient in reading and math on the CRCT are performing below grade level on their NAEP counterpart tests. The state disagrees, noting that the two exams measure different things.

“It does not account for differences in what each state assessment measures and what NAEP measures, nor does the study account for differences in the definitions of proficiency,” DOE spokesman Matt Cardoza says.

But why is it that the high-performing states — the ones who shine no matter what comparison is being made or what test is being considered — also lead on NAEP? The states sharing the lower berths with Georgia in the NAEP mapping are mostly the usual laggards.

● In reading, Georgia fourth-graders who met the proficiency standard set by the CRCT had an equivalent NAEP score of 185 in reading. Not only is a score of 185 below NAEP’s proficiency score of 238, it’s below NAEP’s basic level cutoff score of 208.

● In eighth-grade reading, students deemed proficient in reading by the CRCT had an equivalent NAEP score of 215.

Again, the score trails the NAEP proficiency score of 281 and falls below the NAEP basic score cutoff of 243.

● And math tells much the same story. Georgia’s fourth-grade proficiency score translates to a NAEP score of 213, below both the NAEP proficiency score of 249 and the basic score of 214.

● In eighth-grade math, the CRCT proficiency score maps to a NAEP score of 243.

That’s well below the NAEP proficiency score of 299 and the basic score of 262.

Some states have imposed even more rigorous performance standards for proficiency on their own tests than NAEP. In both fourth- and eighth-grade math, Massachusetts students had to score higher than proficient on NAEP to meet the state standard.

South Carolina demanded its students meet a higher standard than NAEP for eighth-grade reading and math proficiency.

“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.

“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,” the authors explained.

“This study provides a common benchmark to interpret state assessment results, and a needed link to compare results across states.”

DOE says the most important factor is that Georgia has been improving on NAEP. “If you look at the 2007 and the most recent 2009 NAEP results you see that Georgia is making steady gains and preparing students well to compete against other students from across the country,” Cardoza said.

“We continue to see increased student achievement on both the NAEP and CRCT,” he said, “including decreases in the achievement gap.”

I wish we could also see a decrease in our test gap.