James Harvey here explores “the problem with proficiency.”

Common Core tests arbitrarily decided that the NAEP proficiency level should be the “passing” mark for all. Test results are routinely reported as if those who did not meet this standard were “failing.”

I have routinely argued on this blog that NAEP proficiency is equivalent to earning an A, and that it was nuts to expect all students to earn an A. Only in one state (Massachusetts) have as many as 50% reached the standard.

Harvey demonstrates the reality.

He writes:

“In 1996, the International Education Assessment (IEA) released one of the earliest examinations of how well 4th grade students all over the world could read. IEA is a highly credible international institution that monitors comparative school performance; it also administers the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a global assessment of 4th and 8th grade mathematics and science achievement. Its 1996 assessment (The IEA Reading Literacy Study, a predecessor to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, or PIRLS) demonstrated that out of 27 participating nations, U.S. 4th graders ranked number two in reading (National Center for Education Statistics, 1996). Only Finland ranked higher. To the extent these rankings mean very much, this second-place finish for the United States was an impressive accomplishment.

”But around the same time, the National Assessment Governing Board of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that just one-third of American 4th graders were “proficient” in reading. To this day, the board of NAEP continues to release similarly bleak findings about American 4th graders’ reading performance (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011). And IEA continues to release global findings indicating that the performance of U.S. 4th graders in reading remains world class (Mullis et al., 2012).

“How could both these findings be accurate? Was it true, as NAEP results indicated, that U.S. 4th graders couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time? Or was IEA’s conclusion—that the performance of American 4th graders in an international context was first class—more valid? A broader question arises here, one that has intrigued researchers for years: How would other nations perform if their students were held to the NAEP achievement-level benchmark for “proficient”? How might they perform on Common Core-aligned assess-ments with benchmarks that reflect those of NAEP?

”How Would Other Nations Score on NAEP?

“In 2015, statistician Emre Gönülates and I set out to explore these questions on behalf of the National Superintendents Roundtable (of which I am executive director) and the Horace Mann League (on whose board I serve). The results of our examination, recently released in a report titled How High the Bar? (Harvey & Gönülates, 2017), are eye-opening. In short, the vast majority of students in the vast majority of nations would not clear the NAEP bar for proficiency in reading, mathematics, or science. And the same is true of the “career and college-readiness” benchmarks in mathematics and English language arts that are used by the major Common Core-aligned assessments.

“This finding matters because in recent years, communities all over the United States have seen bleak headlines about the performance of their students and schools. Many of these headlines rely on reports about student achievement from NAEP or the Common Core assessments. One particular concern is that only a minority of students in the United States meet the NAEP Proficient benchmark. Frequently, arguments in favor of maintaining this particular benchmark as the desired goal for American students and education institutions are couched in terms of establishing demanding standards so the United States becomes more competitive internationally.

“But the reality is that communities around the world would face identical bleak headlines if their students sat down to take the NAEP assessments. So, when U.S. citizens read that “only one-third” or “less than half” of the students in their local schools are proficient in mathematics, science, or reading (or other subjects), they can rest assured that the same judgments could be applied to national education systems throughout the world if students in those nations participated in NAEP or Common Core-related assessments. (This is true despite the widespread perception that average student performance in some other nations exceeds average student performance in the United States. The metric applied in our study is not a rank ordering of mean scores by nation but the percentage of students in each nation likely to exceed the NAEP Proficient benchmark.)

“Our findings may not even be surprising when we consider questions that have arisen from previous research on NAEP.”

Harvey goes on to explain why it is absurd to use NAEP proficiency as a passing mark.