In a recent study conducted by Paul Peterson and Peter Kaplan of Harvard University, Arkansas ranked poorly when compared to other states on how state proficiency standards measure up to national standards. Arkansas was tied with four other states for 43rd place and earned a D+ grade. To put that in perspective, ten other states received a D and two received a failing grade.
Peterson’s purpose for this study was to compare the individual state educational proficiency standards to the national proficiency standards, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Proficiency standards are the accountability measures that each state establishes individually to define which students meet the set educational criteria, and are not to be confused with content standards. The proficiency rates on each state’s assessment are compared to the national assessment, and those whose state standards prove to be equal to or higher than the national standards are given high grades. For most states, though, their standards proved to be lower than the national standards, so many received a low grade.
This method assumes that the NAEP, generally thought to be rigorous, has the correct proficiency standards. It also allows us to compare states against one another (rank their relative proficiency standards rigor). For example, on Arkansas’ 8th grade Benchmark exam, 77% of students are rated as Proficient while only 29% earn a Proficient grade on the NAEP.
According to Peterson and Kaplan, this grade is a measurement in truth-telling. Is the label “Proficient” meaningful in a national context or does it represent a lower bar for “Proficient” within the state? As we are all used to hearing by now, the future of students today is competing in a national and global marketplace, which requires a high level of preparation for upward mobility. The high NAEP standard provides such a benchmark. However, some state standards show large numbers of students being proficient, when in fact much less actually are proficient.
This grade rewards the states whose state proficiency levels tell the truth about where students would score on national standards. Systems like this do not reward the same old states that seem to have the highest test scores (although they are not excluded from doing well), but rather rewards those states who ambitiously set high standards in order to tell the truth about where their students need to strive toward.
Take for example the state of Tennessee, which raised the state educational standards in 2007. Before the change, the state said that 90% of students scored proficient; after the change, the proficiency rate was around 50%. This lower rate was a true reflection of the hard work ahead for the state, instead of pats on the back for clearing a low hurdle.
At the OEP, we believe we should reflect on how our educational system is held accountable. There is an argument to be made for holding lower, more “realistic” standards within the context of your state. However, we think that it is more than reasonable to hold our students accountable at the national level, which is where the real competition is when they leave high school and college.