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State Tests Dumbed Down to Create a False Impression of NCLB Success

Oct 10, 2007

A new report reveals that the tests states use to determine reading and math proficiency under No Child Left Behind are giving people a false impression in regards to the success of NCLB. Many states have dumbed tests down to increase proficiency rates, and created disparities that insure at least two-thirds of American children attend schools with low expectations.

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Reading and Math Proficiency Standards by State

The Proficiency Illusion, a new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation Association uses data from schools in 26 states to demonstrate how different reading and math proficiency standards are from state to state.

Each of the following graphs illustrate the 'proficiency cut scores' students would need to pass an NCLB test in various states as determined by the Institute:

Grade 3 Reading Proficiency Standards

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Reading proficiency scores for 3rd graders vary wildly. Of the states studied, Colorado, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Michigan had the lowest standards; South Carolina, Nevada, Massachusetts, and California had the highest.

Grade 3 Math Proficiency Standards

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With scores ranging from the 6th percentile to the 71st on the NWEA scale, it is clear that the disparities between state proficiency levels for math are just as unbelievable as they are for reading. Colorado, New Jersey, and Michigan again have the lowest standards for the 3rd grade; California, Nevada, and South Carolina have the highest.

Grade 8 Reading Proficiency Standards

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The median cut score for grade 8 reading is 36, but a surprising number of schools have standards that are far, far below that. The worst offenders are Colorado, Wisconsin, Delaware and Ohio. The only state with standards well above the median is South Carolina.

Grade 8 Math Proficiency Standards

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There is just as much variation between math proficiency standards as there is between reading proficiency standards for grade 8. Illinois, Wisconsin, and Colorado have the lowest cut scores; Washington, Montana, and South Carolina have the highest.

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Summary of National Findings

According to the The Proficiency Illusion, some two-thirds of U.S. schoolchildren attend class in states whose expectations for what their students should learn are mediocre (or worse).

A few other interesting findings:

  • In most states, reading proficiency standards are much lower than the standards set for math. This means that reading tests are easier to pass than math tests.
  • Although many states are maintaining their tests' level of difficulty, 8 of the 26 states in the study have made both math and reading tests easier to pass for multiple grade levels.
  • Standards are much lower for younger students than they are for older students. This automatically sets young people up to fail in middle school, and makes parents, schools, and policymakers think students are on track when this is not the case.
  • Some states have a stricter proficiency standard for NCLB purposes than they do for internal state evaluation purposes. For example, in Colorado--the state with the lowest proficiency standards for grade 3 math and reading, and for grade 8 reading--what is considered 'partially proficient' on state tests is reported as 'proficient' on NCLB tests.
  • 70% of the reported NCLB improvements in math and 50% of the reported improvements in reading proficiency rates are directly related to the relaxing of proficiency standards.

What This Study Means to Education Policy

The Proficiency Illusion underscores the desperate need for change in education policy. The whole point of NCLB is to ensure that no child is left behind. But, the fact is that states are currently doing a very poor job of establishing and maintaining proficiency standards. Since most policymakers and parents use proficiency test results to determine whether or not students are track, this poses a serious problem.

Every child is supposed to be 'proficient' in reading and math by the year 2014. If every state has a different definition of what is considered proficient, and changes the definition simply to meet NCLB standards, then our current education policy insures that some children will inevitably be left behind.

As it stands, there is no way to tell whether or not a student is making adequate progress in any given year. When states dumb down the tests from one year to another it is easy to make it appear as though proficiency levels are improving, but this doesn't mean that it is true.

NCLB might as well ask whether or not a certain percentage of students can pass a crookedly designed state test versus whether or not students are as proficient as they should be.

One can only hope that The Proficiency Illusion will bring attention to the fact that our education policy is riddled with flaws. If enough people become concerned and as angry as they should be about this situation, perhaps we will even see a positive impact on the system and the students it is meant to serve.

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