[Paleopsych] NYT: Meaning of 'Proficient' Varies for Schools Across Country

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Meaning of 'Proficient' Varies for Schools Across Country
NYT January 19, 2005

Judged solely by recent statewide tests, fourth graders in
Mississippi and Colorado would appear to be the best young
readers in the nation. In both states, 87 percent of fourth
graders passed their exams.

But Mississippi came in dead last among the 50 states when
fourth-grade reading was examined using a different
standard, a newly mandated but decades-old test called the
National Assessment of Educational Progress, or N.A.E.P. On
that test, only 18 percent of Mississippi's fourth graders
achieved proficiency.

Colorado's proficiency rate fell to 37 percent on the
national test, but that score was high enough to rank fifth
in the nation.

Such comparisons of performance on state tests versus
national tests have never been possible before on a
nationwide basis. The N.A.E.P., known as the nation's
report card, used to be voluntary for states. In 2003, it
became mandatory. The comparisons suggest how widely the
definition of "proficient" varies from state to state, as
each administers its own exams and sets its own performance

And those standards matter more today than ever, because
they factor into the federal education law, No Child Left
Behind, which requires that all students reach proficiency
on state reading and math tests by 2014. States are also
judged on yearly progress toward that goal, and harsh
penalties, including the loss of federal aid, await those
that fail to bring all students to a proficient level.

"No Child Left Behind leaves a fairly crucial decision"
about defining proficiency up to the states, said Ronald A.
Skinner, research director of Education Week, which
published the state and national scores side by side
recently in an annual survey of schools. "Certainly those
states that have set the bar lower will have an easier time
meeting the mark and avoiding federal sanctions for their
schools. It's going to be tough on states that have put
tough standards on their students."

Researchers and educators say the new data will make it
possible to address questions they could not answer before.

"When you compare yourselves using N.A.E.P., you're able to
compare yourselves to a much more expansive and
comprehensive national base," said Douglas E. Wood,
executive director of the National Academy for Excellent
Teaching at Teachers College at Columbia University. "It
seems to me that offers us additional information by which
to make policy decisions."

In Mississippi, Kristopher J. Kaase, the director of the
Department of Education's office of student assessment,
said the state had traditionally used its own definition of
the word proficient.

"We call it solid academic performance required for success
at the next grade level," Mr. Kaase said. "Step away from
that for a moment. Who's ready to move on to the next grade
level? At least a C student. I don't think anyone would
have any qualms about that. Would they be proficient
according to N.A.E.P.? Probably not."

The smallest disparities between results on the state and
national tests were found in a variety of states across the
country, including Massachusetts, Maine, Wyoming, South
Carolina, Vermont and Missouri.

The largest disparities were in the South. In Alabama, for
instance, 72 percent of fourth graders were proficient on
the state's math test, but only 19 percent passed N.A.E.P.
at the proficient level.

In New York, the gaps between state and N.A.E.P. scores
were much smaller, but the state did not fare as well as
Connecticut or New Jersey on the national test. Thirty-five
percent of eighth graders in New York were proficient on
the N.A.E.P. reading test, compared with 45 on the state
test. Thirty-three percent of New York fourth graders were
proficient on N.A.E.P.'s math test, while 78 percent passed
the state math test.

Mr. Kaase said that No Child Left Behind has made
Mississippi wary about raising standards.

"What is already a challenging goal - reaching 100 percent
proficient by 2014 - you can make it much more challenging
or nearly impossible, depending on what you do," he said.
"It becomes a delicate balance. But we do feel we need to
continue to press. We're not satisfied."

Colorado's definition of proficient, a state official said,
was changed to comply with No Child Left Behind, which
requires that results be reported in three categories. The
state had for years reported its test results in four
categories: unsatisfactory, partially proficient,
proficient and advanced.

To meet the new requirements, Colorado grouped its
partially proficient students with the proficient.

"We had a dilemma," said William J. Maloney, the
commissioner of education. "We would have had to throw our
whole system in the Dumpster just to accommodate the
N.C.L.B. So we said: 'Here is Colorado. For the purposes of
the feds, we combined proficient and partially proficient.'

Unlike Mississippi and Colorado, Missouri adheres to a
strict definition of proficient that aligns closely with
the N.A.E.P., or surpasses it. In 2003, eighth graders in
Missouri did better on the N.A.E.P. reading test than on
the state's own exam.

"We've tried to look at it as 'How can we best serve our
kids?' instead of trying to play some numbers game against
federal law," said Bert Shulte, the deputy commissioner of
education in Missouri.

But Mr. Shulte realizes the long-term risks of Missouri's
decision. "It makes it harder for us to achieve a federal
numerical goal," he said. "But in terms of what it says to
students when they achieve proficiency, it is a
better-grounded message."

Some educators and policy makers say that rather than
focusing on a state's performance on a single test, the
goal should be improvement over time.

"On the one hand, you can say, if there's a huge disparity,
if a state is telling parents that 80 percent of students
are proficient but on N.A.E.P it's 20 percent, they're
lying," said Kati Haycock, the director of the Education
Trust, a group that advocates standards. "While that may at
some level be true, in order to make progress in education
you have to have near-term goals that are achievable. So if
you're a state with really low achievement and you say,
'I've got to set my state's bar where N.A.E.P. is, and make
it under N.C.L.B.'s timeframe,' I think educators would
throw up their hands and say, 'We can't get that far.' "

Ms. Haycock cited North Carolina and Texas as examples of
states that have shown the biggest gains on the N.A.E.P.
over the last 10 years while having low-level state

Mississippi fits into that picture as well. In 2003, for
instance, the number of fourth graders scoring at or above
the proficient level on the N.A.E.P. math exam more than
doubled to 17 percent, from 8 percent in 2000, while 74
percent of fourth graders were deemed at or above the
proficient level on the state test.

"And so, where a mismatch as large as you see in some
states may be worrisome, considering near-term targets, I
think the evidence would not suggest that's a bad thing,"
Ms. Haycock said.

Mark Musick, the president of the Southern Regional
Education Board, an organization that advises 16 states on
education policy, said he has been arguing for years that
"the states should look to N.A.E.P. and any other
information, take it and see if the results are telling
them basically the same thing."

Mr. Musick, a former chairman of N.A.E.P.'s governing
board, added, "If there's some wild difference, then they
should try to figure out why that difference exists."


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