The new Common Core tests funded by the federal government agreed to adopt the standard of “proficiency” used by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Students who are not “proficient” are deemed to have “failed” to meet the standards. They are described as “not proficient,” which is a very bad thing indeed.
But what does NAEP proficiency mean?
I served on the NAEP governing board for seven years. I understood that “proficient” was a very high standard. There are four NAEP achievement levels: Advanced (typically reached by 5-8% of students); Proficient (typically reached by about 35-40% of students); Basic (typically reached by about 75% of students); and Below Basic (very poor performance, about 20-25% of students). Thus, by aligning its “pass” mark with NAEP proficient, the PARCC and SBAC (the two testing groups) were choosing a level that most students will not reach. Only in Massachusetts have as many as 50% of students reached NAEP proficient. Nearly half have not.
As Catherine Gewertz wrote in Education Week, “The two common-assessment consortia are taking early steps to align the “college readiness” achievement levels on their tests with the rigorous proficiency standard of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a move that is expected to set many states up for a steep drop in scores.
After all, fewer than four in 10 children reached the “proficient” level on the 2013 NAEP in reading and math.”
So, if these consortia intend to align with the very rigorous standards of NAEP, most students will fail the tests. They will fail them every year. Will the test results be used for promotion and/or graduation? If so, we can expect a majority of the current generation of students not to be promoted or graduate from high school. What will we do with them?
It is time to ask whether NAEP proficient is the right “cut score” (passing mark). I think it is not. To me, given my knowledge of NAEP achievement levels, proficient represents solid academic performance, a high level of achievement. I think of it as an A. Advanced, to me, is A+. Anyone who expects the majority of students to score an A on their state exams is being, I think, wildly unrealistic. Please remember that NAEP proficient represents a high level of achievement, not a grade level mark or a pass-fail mark. NAEP basic would be a proper benchmark as a passing grade, not NAEP proficient.
Furthermore, the NAEP achievements levels have been controversial ever since they were first promulgated in the early 1990s when Checker Finn was chairman of the NAEP governing board. Checker was subsequently president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation/Institute, and he has long believed that American students are slackers and need rigorous standards (as a member of his board for many years, I agreed with him then, not now). He believed that the NAEP scale scores (0-500) did not show the public how American students were doing, and he was a strong proponent of the achievement levels, which were set very high.
James Harvey, a former superintendent who runs the National Superintendents’ Roundtable, wrote an article in 2011 that explains just how controversial the NAEP achievement levels are.
He wrote then:
Since definition is crucial in any discussion of standards, let’s define the terms of the discussion. The No Child Left Behind Act, passed by Congress in 2001 as the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, permitted states to develop their own assessments and set their own proficiency standards to measure student achievement. Most states, for their purposes, quite sensibly defined proficiency as performance at grade level.
What about NAEP? Oddly, NAEP’s proficient standard has little to do with grade-level performance or even proficiency as most people understand the term. NAEP officials like to think of the assessment standard as “aspirational.” In 2001, long before the current contretemps around state assessments, two experts associated with the National Assessment Governing Board—Mary Lynne Bourque, staff member to the governing board, and Susan Loomis, a member of the board—made it clear that “the proficient achievement level does not refer to ‘at grade’ performance. Nor is performance at the proficient level synonymous with ‘proficiency’ in the subject. That is, students who may be considered proficient in a subject, given the common usage of the term, might not satisfy the requirements for performance at the NAEP achievement level.”
It is hardly surprising, then, that most state assessments aimed at establishing proficiency as “at grade” produce results different from a NAEP standard in which proficiency does not refer to “at grade” performance or even describe students that most would think of as proficient. Far from supporting the NAEP proficient level as an appropriate benchmark for state assessments, many analysts endorse the NAEP basic level as the more appropriate standard because NAEP’s current standard sets an unreasonably high bar.
What is striking in reviewing the history of NAEP is how easily its governing board has shrugged off criticisms about the board’s standards-setting processes.
In 1993, the National Academy of Education argued that NAEP’s achievement-setting processes were “fundamentally flawed” and “indefensible.” That same year, the General Accounting Office concluded that “the standard-setting approach was procedurally flawed, and that the interpretations of the resulting NAEP scores were of doubtful validity.” The National Assessment Governing Board, or NAGB, which oversees NAEP, was so incensed by an unfavorable report it received from Western Michigan University in 1991 that it looked into firing the contractor before hiring other experts to take issue with the university researchers’ conclusions that counseled against releasing NAEP scores without warning about NAEP’s “conceptual and technical shortcomings.”
“Most state assessments aimed at establishing proficiency as ‘at grade’ produce results different from a NAEP standard.”
In addition, NAGB absorbed savage criticism from the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded in 1999 that “NAEP’s current achievement-level-setting procedures remain fundamentally flawed. The judgment tasks are difficult and confusing; raters’ judgments of different item types are internally inconsistent; appropriate validity evidence for the cut scores is lacking; and the process has produced unreasonable results. … The results are not believable.”
For the most part, such pointed criticism has rolled off the governing board like so much water off a duck’s back.
As recently as 2009, the U.S. Department of Education received a report on NAEP from the University of Nebraska’s Buros Institute. This latest document expressed worries about NAEP’s “validity framework” and asked for a “transparent, organized validity framework, beginning with a clear definition of the intended and unintended uses of the NAEP assessment scores. We recommend that NAGB continue to explore achievement-level methodologies.” In short, for the last 20 years, it has been hard to find any expert not on the Education Department’s payroll who will accept the NAEP benchmarks uncritically.
Those benchmarks might be more convincing if most students outside the United States could meet them. That’s a hard case to make, judging by a 2007 analysis from Gary Phillips, a former acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. Phillips set out to map NAEP benchmarks onto international assessments in science and mathematics and found that only Taipei (or Taiwan) and Singapore have a significantly higher percentage of proficient students in 8th grade science than the United States does. In math, the average performance of 8th grade students in six jurisdictions could be classified as proficient: Singapore, South Korea, Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, and Flemish Belgium. Judging by Phillips’ results, it seems that when average results, by jurisdiction, place typical students at the NAEP proficient level, the jurisdictions involved are typically wealthy—many with “tiger mothers” or histories of excluding low-income students or those with disabilities.
None of this is to say that the method of determining the NAEP achievement levels is entirely indefensible. Like other large-scale assessments—the International Mathematics and Science Study, the Progress on International Reading Literacy Survey, and the Program on International Student Assessment—NAEP is an extremely complex endeavor, depending on procedures in which experts make judgments about what students should know and construct assessment items to distinguish between student responses. Panels then make judgments about specific items, and trained scorers, in turn, bring judgment to bear on constructed-response items, which typically make up about 40 percent of the assessment.
That said, it is hard to avoid some obvious conclusions. First, NAEP’s achievement levels, far from being engraved on stone tablets, are administered, as Congress has insisted, on a “trial basis.” Second, NAEP achievement levels are based on judgment and educated guesses, not science. Third, the proficiency benchmark seems reachable by most students in only a handful of wealthy or Asian jurisdictions.
It is important to know this history when looking at the results of the Common Core tests (PARCC and SBAC). The fact that they have chosen NAEP proficient as their cut score guarantees that most students will “fail” and will continue to “fail.” Exactly what is the point? It is a good thing to have high standards, but they should be reasonable and attainable. NAEP proficient is not attainable by most students. Not because they are dumb, but because it is the wrong cut score for a state examination. It is “aspirational,” like running a four-minute mile. Some runners will be able to run a four-minute mile, but most cannot and never will. Virtually every major league pitcher aspires to pitch a no-hitter, but very few will do it. The rest will not, and they are not failures.
What parents and teachers need to know is that the testing consortia have chosen a passing mark that is inappropriate, that is not objective, and that is certain to fail most students. That’s not right, and that’s not fair.