As I wrote in an earlier post, NAEP Proficient is not the same as “grade level.” NAEP Proficient is equivalent to an A or an A-. Secretary of Education Cardona made the egregious error of saying at a Congressional hearing on April 18 that 2/3 of the students in this nation were below grade level. He was wrong.

Tom Loveless, then of the Brookings Institution (now retired), wrote an excellent article in 2016, providing a history of NAEP and explaining just how high the standard for NAEP Proficient is. He was responding to the wildly inaccurate claims of rightwing ideologues, who said the same things that Secretary Cardona said.

Here are some excerpts from his article, “The NAEP Proficiency Myth.”

Equating NAEP proficiency with grade level is bogus. Indeed, the validity of the achievement levels themselves is questionable. They immediately came under fire in reviews by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Education.[1] The National Academy of Sciences report was particularly scathing, labeling NAEP’s achievement levels as “fundamentally flawed.”

Despite warnings of NAEP authorities and critical reviews from scholars, some commentators, typically from advocacy groups, continue to confound NAEP proficient with grade level. Organizations that support school reform, such as Achieve Inc. and Students First, prominently misuse the term on their websites. Achieve presses states to adopt cut points aligned with NAEP proficient as part of new Common Core-based accountability systems. Achieve argues that this will inform parents whether children “can do grade level work.” No, it will not. That claim is misleading….

Today’s eighth graders have made it about half-way to NAEP proficient in 25 years, but they still need to gain almost two more years of math learning (17 points) to reach that level. And, don’t forget, that’s just the national average, so even when that lofty goal is achieved, half of the nation’s students will still fall short of proficient. Advocates of the NAEP proficient standard want it to be for allstudents. That is ridiculous. Another way to think about it: proficient for today’s eighth graders reflects approximately what the average twelfth grader knew in mathematics in 1990. Someday the average eighth grader may be able to do that level of mathematics. But it won’t be soon, and it won’t be every student.

In the 2007 Brown Center Report on American Education, I questioned whether NAEP proficient is a reasonable achievement standard.[2] That year, a study by Gary Phillips of American Institutes for Research was published that projected the 2007 TIMSS scores on the NAEP scale. Phillips posed the question: based on TIMSS, how many students in other countries would score proficient or better on NAEP? The study’s methodology only produces approximations, but they are eye-popping….

Singapore was the top scoring nation on TIMSS that year, but even there, more than a quarter of students fail to reach NAEP proficient. Japan is not usually considered a slouch on international math assessments, but 43% of its eighth graders fall short. The U.S. looks weak, with only 26% of students proficient. But England, Israel, and Italy are even weaker. Norway, a wealthy nation with per capita GDP almost twice that of the U.S., can only get 9 out of 100 eighth graders to NAEP proficient.

Finland isn’t shown in the table because it didn’t participate in the 2007 TIMSS. But it did in 2011, with Finland and the U.S. scoring about the same in eighth grade math. Had Finland’s eighth graders taken NAEP in 2011, it’s a good bet that the proportion scoring below NAEP proficient would have been similar to that in the U.S. And yet articles such as “Why Finland Has the Best Schools,” appear regularly in the U.S. press….[3]

NAEP proficient is not synonymous with grade level. NAEP officials urge that proficient not be interpreted as reflecting grade level work. It is a standard set much higher than that. Scholarly panels have reviewed the NAEP achievement standards and found them flawed. The highest scoring nations of the world would appear to be mediocre or poor performers if judged by the NAEP proficient standard. Even large numbers of U.S. calculus students fall short.

As states consider building benchmarks for student performance into accountability systems, they should not use NAEP proficient—or any standard aligned with NAEP proficient—as a benchmark. It is an unreasonable expectation, one that ill serves America’s students, parents, and teachers–and the effort to improve America’s schools.