Being deemed "proficient" on a standardized state test may not mean what you think it means, according to a new study by an education reform advocacy group.
"Large numbers of students graduate from high school, meet all the requirements, but are poorly prepared for what comes next," said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, that produced the report.
In "Proficient vs. Prepared," Achieve compares the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test against those of the individualized tests administered by the states as required under No Child Left Behind.
Unlike the state level exams, the NAEP test is not given to every child, and there is no specific accountability imposed on teachers based on the results.
The Achieve report notes, although NAEP scores are the "gold standard" for measuring student achievement, the NAEP scores often go unnoticed by parents and students who rely on the individualized state test scores.
Focusing on fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math scores, the report highlighted the disconnect between NAEP and state exams, with the state exams often suggesting that far more students are college and career ready than do the NAEP.
This disconnect, critics argue, does a great disservice to parents who are lulled into false security by lax state exams.
"This was an important reminder of why states are moving to higher standards," said Mike Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, based in Washington, D.C. "We have been sending the false impression to parents that their kids were doing fine when they weren't."
When a state tells parents their children are "proficient," Petrilli said, they think that means they are on track for college. Students would pass the tests and get good grades, and all the signals looked good.
"It wasn't until they landed on a college campus," Petrilli said, "that someone told them no, you are actually not ready."
The report deemed those states whose NAEP scores closely aligned with their state test scores as the "truth-tellers." These included New York, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Utah, while those with the largest gaps included Georgia, Texas and Louisiana, among others.
Georgia, the worst performer on both fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math, found that over 90 percent of its fourth-grade reading students were proficient. But the NAEP scores at that same grade level fell short of 35 percent proficient.
All over Georgia, Achieve points out, schools are sending fourth-graders home with test scores that look great, while NAEP suggests that the overwhelming majority are struggling. And because the rosy state level exams go to each child, it is the overly optimistic signal that gets home, not the alarm.
The critique echoes comments made last month by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, speaking at a conference in Chicago. He endorsed testing as a civil right, arguing that testing and accountability are civil rights issues.
He shared a personal story to illustrate what testing means to him, an exchange he had with a high school student that helped spur him into a career in education. Duncan said right after he finished college he was working with an inner-city program in south Chicago when a high school basketball player he was working with asked for help with the ACT so he could go to college. The student was on the honor roll, obeyed the rules, stayed out of gangs and didn’t do drugs, Duncan said, but he could barely read.
“This was a 16-year-old young man who had no idea how far behind he was,” Duncan said. “No one in the system had had an honest conversation with him about his strengths and weaknesses."
In Utah, one of the highest performing states in the Achieve list, not everyone was cheering.
"I think what we need to do is quit spending so much time and effort on worrying about assessments and start looking at the kind of learning environments we have in schools, the kind of best practices we know will make a difference," Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association, told the Desert News.. "We need to back away from trying to compare (assessments) and start looking at conditions for learning in schools."
Critics of standardized testing see every push for higher standards as another excuse to impose more high stakes tests on an already frazzled population of teachers and students.
"The NAEP proficiency level has been found to be flawed by every independent analysis we've seen," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the Washington, D.C.-based FairTest, that advocates for more limited and fair use of testing.
On some level, Schaeffer is fond of the NAEP test. It is sound methodologically, he said, and because it is a "spot check" test people don't study for it and it does not distort classroom instruction. He also said that NAEP puts out good analytical reports with solid data that can be compared previous decades.
Schaeffer's main objection to NAEP is how they set "proficiency" line, that he says is arbitrary and political, but also the heart of the Achieve report.
Schaeffer does not dispute that many high-school graduates need remedial work when they get to college.
"But that's not a new phenomenon," he said, "nor one that the high-stakes public school testing policies of the past decade have reduced."
Schaffer also argues the nation's remediation strategies may be misguided. He notes recent publications from the Community College Research Center that argue that the widespread use of non-credit-bearing courses for remediation is not helpful, and that more students succeed in college if they enrolled directly in regular introductory level courses.
Morgan Jacobsen contributed to this report.