The rheeform leadership has changed. Michelle Rhee was once the cover girl for test-and-punish reform, and now it is Campbell Brown. The telegenic Brown used to read the news on television but now she has taken Rhee’s place in the reformy firmament. Since she launched her career as an education expert with an op-ed attacking the teachers’ union in New York City for protecting sexual predators, Brown has become increasingly active in the world of education punditry. She received $4 million from various billionaires to launch a news site called “The 74,” which was supposed to refer to the number of school-age children in the United States. However, there are 50 million school-age children, but then why quibble? Brown organized candidate debates for both parties last fall. Three Republicans showed up, and no Democrats. Yesterday, she moderated a panel at the Harvard Graduate School of Education at a symposium on poverty and schooling.


Now Brown, having established her bona fides as an expert on education, has prepared a memo for the next president. 


Unfortunately her memo begins with a false statement. She starts by saying that 2/3 of American students in eighth grade are “below grade level” in reading and math. Apparently she refers to the National Assessment of Education Progress, the only national assessment of student skills. She confuses NAEP proficiency, a specific achievement level, with grade level.


To begin with, “grade level” is a median. Fifty percent are always above grade level, and fifty percent are always below.


But the NAEP achievement levels do not measure “grade level.” They are defined in the NAEP reports thus: “basic” represents partial mastery of skills; “proficiency” represents mastery; “advanced” represents extraordinary performance. “Below basic” is very poor performance.


Here are the definitions on the NAEP website:



Achievement Level Policy Definitions


Partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.

Solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.


Superior performance.


Here is a statement on the U.S. Department of Education (National Center for Education Statistics) website:

The statement, “Proficient is not synonymous with grade-level performance.”


The NAEP website says that the Governing Board thinks that the goal should be “proficient,” not “basic,” but the reality is that these achievement levels have been in place since 1992, and in no state or district has 100% of students ever achieved NAEP proficiency. In only one state, Massachusetts, has as much as 50% of students reached proficiency. If you believe, as Campbell Brown and the NAGB board does, that 100% of students should reach proficiency, then you believe that somewhere there is a baseball team that never loses a game, or an entire school district in which all children get grades of all As. It has never happened, not even in the wealthiest, most successful schools and districts. When elephants can fly, that is when “all” students will reach NAEP proficiency. Be it noted that the standard (the passing mark or cut score) for the Common Core tests is aligned with NAEP proficient, which is why 65-70% of students consistently “fail.”


I was a member of the National Assessment Governing Board for seven years. I read questions before they were administered to samples of students across the nation and in every state. The greatest number of students are scored as “basic,” which I consider to be the equivalent of a B or C. Those who register as “proficient” are the equivalent of an A performance. Advanced is for superstars. Typically, only 5-10% of students are “advanced.” About a third are proficient or advanced. The remaining 65% are basic or below basic. (These are my definitions, not the government’s or the NAGB board.)


To expect that most students will score the equivalent of an A is nonsensical.


Ms. Brown has been engaged in a Twitter debate with Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution. Loveless, a real expert with years of teaching experience (elementary school) and a doctorate, has been studying and writing about NAEP and student performance for many years. He chastised Brown on Twitter for saying that 2/3 of students are “below grade level.” He encouraged her to check her facts, because he assumed that her journalistic background had taught her to do so. Carol Burris, director of the Network for Public Education, and veteran educator, jumped into the exchange.


Just yesterday, Brown responded with this comment:


Campbell Brown ‏@campbell_brown 
@carolburris @tomloveless99 this is why parents dont listen to u. U play semantics while 2/3 kids arent where they should be. I call BS


Since Brown thinks that NAEP proficiency is the same as “grade level,” she would profit by reading this report on the meaning of NAEP achievement levels. It gives a good overview of them and points out that they do not refer to grade levels. The report also usefully reviews the numerous critiques of the achievement levels, by experts who consider them “fundamentally flawed” and an inaccurate measure of student achievement.


I can only hope that Ms. Brown, education expert, gets a quick tutorial about what NAEP achievement levels are.


And I invite her to take the NAEP eighth-grade test, composed of released questions in reading and math, and release her scores. In a supervised setting, of course. I think she will be surprised. I will be interested to see if she is “proficient,” since she believes that anyone who is not proficient is a failure.