James Harvey, executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable, warns parents and the public not to be fooled by the “proficiency” standard of NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The NAEP scores for 2017 will be released today, and you will hear loud lamenting about how many students are “not proficient.”

Under the leadership of Chester (Checker) E. Finn, Jr., the National Assessment Governing Board adopted “achievement levels” in 1992. The levels are: Advanced, Proficient, Basic, and Below Basic. They have been “provisional” since that time. They are determined by the subjective guesswork of adult panels who decide what students in fourth and eighth grade “should know and be able to do.” Sometimes these panels include teachers, but not always.

Before 1992, NAEP results were reported only as “scale scores” on a scale of 500 (they still are). One could see if the scores went up or down but not deplore their rise or fall because the scale scores tell you what is, not what ought to be. Checker has long been a critic of American schools, and he pushed for an easily understandable way to gauge the slow progress of the schools. Progress on a mass test is always incremental. When it is not, the measure is suspect.

Achievement levels provided a way to make simple (and simplistic) judgment calls. Most often, in this time of lamentations and chest-pounding about the younger generation, the achievement levels have turned into a cudgel with which to beat teachers, students, and public schools, usually by ignorant politicians who want to pass laws to ensure that “no child will be left behind” and that “every student succeeds.” Laws don’t teach children, nor do bluffs and fake threats.

My term on NAGB, the NAEP governing board, did not overlap Checker’s. I served later, from 1998-2004. I came to believe that the Advanced level represented A+ performance; Proficiency was a solid A, A-, even a B+; Basic was a B to C- level, where the plurality of students scored, and Below Basic was D and F. That was my judgment, not the policy of the board. When anyone asserts that all or almost all students should score in the Proficient range, I think of this as massive grade inflation. Reaching Proficient is a very high bar. It is entirely unrealistic to use NAEP Proficient as a passing standard, as the Common Core Tests do. Any school in which every student scores an A or A- or B+ must be a school for gifted students.

James Harvey writes:






SEATTLE, April 9, 2018 – As the U.S Department of Education prepares to release the latest findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the American people should understand that the misleading term “proficient” sets a performance benchmark beyond the reach of most students in the world.

A detailed analysis released in January concluded that the vast majority of students in most countries could not demonstrate proficiency as NAEP defines the term.

The authors of the analysis, the National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League, linked NAEP’s proficiency benchmark to the performance of students around the world on international assessments such as TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study).

The report on this work (How High the Bar?) concluded that:

In no nation do even 40 percent of students meet the NAEP Proficient benchmark in Grade 4 reading.

Only one nation has 50 percent or more of its students meeting the Proficient benchmark in Grade 8 science (Singapore).

Just three nations have 50 percent or more of their students meeting the Proficient benchmark in Grade 8 math (Singapore, Republic of Korea, and Japan).

Citing U.S. Department of Education documents, the report criticized the Department for misusing the term “Proficient.” The term, as the Department acknowledges, does not mean performing at grade level. Surprisingly, according to the Department’s statements, it does not even mean proficient, as most people understand the term.

Roundtable and Horace Mann League officials have insisted that the problem can be addressed without lowering standards by changing the term “proficient” to “high.” Without such a change, they maintain, the misuse of the term will continue to confuse both the public and educators, as in the past it has confused U.S. Secretaries of Education.

CONTACT: JAMES HARVEY: Office (206) 526-5336
Cell (206) 579-9272


National Superintendents Roundtable
9425 35th Avenue, NE, Suite E
Seattle, WA 98115
National Superintendents Roundtable
9425 35th Avenue, NE
Suite E
Seattle, WA 98115

Web: superintendentsforum.org
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/ntsupsrt
Twitter: @natsupers