How NAEP Can Help Congress Weigh Student Achievement Standards

Both the House and Senate revisions of the Elementary and Secondary School Act (ESEA) are moving toward giving states far more responsibility for setting student achievement standards than did the last ESEA reauthorization—the 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB). As Congress wrestles with a final version of the bill, it would do well to examine what we’ve learned about state-set standards under NCLB.

The idea behind No Child Left Behind was that all students would be proficient in mathematics and reading by 2014, but the law didn’t define proficiency. Instead, it required each state to define what it meant by proficiency.

NCLB also mandated that each state's fourth and eighth graders take the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in mathematics and reading as a condition for receiving Title I funds.

Since NCLB’s passage, AIR has conducted four studies for the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that have looked at the percentage of students that met states’ definitions of proficiency. We also mapped those cut points onto the NAEP scale, which is the widely accepted yardstick for measuring the rigor of states’ standards.

NCES recently released the latest study and, like the previous ones, it shows huge variations in how states define proficient performance in mathematics and reading for their fourth- and eighth-graders.

In the newest report (using 2013 NAEP data), 83 NAEP points separate the state with the most demanding standards in reading in Grade 8 (New York) from the state with the least demanding (Georgia). For perspective, the Black-White achievement gap in Grade 8 reading is 26 points—a gap that we consider as a nation to be unacceptably large. But the difference in the rigor of the standards set by states for reading proficiency at Grade 8 is more than three times larger than the Black-White achievement gap. What’s more, only New York set Grade 8 reading standards that met NAEP’s definition of reading proficiency.

Some say that NAEP’s definitions of proficiency are more aspirational than realistic—that they are set too high. But, as my colleague Gary Phillips has shown, NAEP’s definitions of proficiency are closer to international benchmarks for proficiency than the standards set by the vast majority of states.

One benefit of the NCES mapping studies is that they have prompted discussions among states and their representative organizations (for example, the Council of Chief State School Officers) about the large variation in standards for student proficiency. The push that these organizations have made for a common set of rigorous content standards (e.g., the Common Core State Standards) seems to indicate that many—if not most—states recognize the problem. All states want their students to graduate prepared for college or good jobs. And the nation’s economic interest is served by having a common set of rigorous state standards—standards that will allow our students to compete favorably, whether in business or academia, with students from the world’s highest achieving countries. However, even with the adoption of rigorous content standards, many states are still failing to adopt rigorous performance standards. Without rigorous performance standards to accompany new rigorous content standards, our students will continue to lag behind their international peers.

So as Congress debates the reauthorization of ESEA, it should dig into the results from NCES’s most recent mapping study to answer some important questions. Do we want to continue or perhaps create more variation by giving states even more freedom in setting their student performance standards? Or should states instead be incentivized to adopt a set of common, rigorous performance standards? Which strategy does Congress believe will best serve the national interest going forward? 

Regardless of what is decided about how much freedom states should have in setting their performance standards, the House would be wise to follow the Senate’s lead in seeing the wisdom of continuing to require students to take the NAEP exam at Grades 4 and 8. Without it, there will be no way for us to know where states have set their standards, how rigorous they are, and how ready our students are to compete globally for jobs.

George Bohrnstedt is senior vice president emeritus and an Institute Fellow at AIR.