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Probing "Proficiency"


The Center on Education Policy has released a new study on what's happened with student achievement since the inception of No Child Left Behind. It concludes that 1) state achievement has risen in math and reading; and that 2) the achievement gap between white and minority students appears to have closed, at least judging by students' performance on state tests, and to a lesser extent, by their performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

One measure the CEP report uses is the percent of students scoring at the "proficient" level on their state tests.

Last year, I wrote about a federal study that detailed the vastly different standards that states use in determining whether their students meet that proficient mark. If states can label a student as "proficient" by either a very stringent or very lax standard, many observers say, it raises questions about whether that term has any real meaning.

Let me refer you to another good, and as far as I can tell, largely overlooked source of information on the disparities in state testing standards. Don McLaughlin, a former chief scientist at the American Institutes for Research, was the lead author on a pair of studies that compared state math and reading test results against NAEP.

McLaughlin's reports received little attention when they were published by the federal National Center for Education Statistics earlier this year. But they reveal tremendous gaps in how high or low some states set the bar for proficiency. They also include detailed studies of individual states' testing policies and student performance vs. NAEP.

One finding in McLaughlin's study is that in math the achievement gap that states report on their tests between white and minority students tends to be somewhat smaller than it is on their NAEP results. This gap is not as pronounced in reading, Mr. McLaughlin told me.

In my story on the CEP study, Bruce Fuller of the University of California, Berkeley, questions whether the achievement gap has really narrowed as much as states are claiming.

McLaughlin's reports, particularly their profiles of individual states, should be a good source of info for education researchers -- as well as for my fellow ink-stained wretches in the news business.


When school leaders discuss school reform, they forget about fiscal accountability. If the concern is with standards they won't respond to questions about curriculum.

Americans are frustrated by endless double-speak. If we can't count on leaders to provide honest, thoughtful answers then who can we trust.

One only has to open an 'exemplary' math textbook to see how dismal our school system has become. The majority of students positively detest school.

The achievement gap is a product of poor curriculum and there is more than a grain of truth showing that laws, like NCLB, provided the loopholes for school reformers to make immense profits at children's expense. One has only to apply for a vender number and begin submitting classroom rosters in order to make a difference.

School reformers have what they want, so the media is nothing more than an endless spin. The US spends more money on education, than it did ten years ago and children are less prepared for higher education. Its no surprise that our society is resegregated. Our own leaders helped achieve it.

There are two federal definitions for "proficiency," one for NAEP and one for NCLB. The NCLB definition is the common language definition of meeting grade level expectations (which grade level expectations each state sets for itself). According to NAEP, however, “It is important to understand clearly that the [NAEP] Proficient achievement level does not refer to ‘at grade’ performance. Nor is performance at the Proficient level synonymous with ‘proficiency’ in the subject. That is, students who may be considered proficient in a subject, given the common usage of the term, might not satisfy the requirements for performance at the NAEP achievement level.”

There is little to no relationship between the rigor of state performance standards and the overall achievement in the states. For a clear example see


The subjects of proficiency and accountability come up in nearly every issue of Education Week, showing for one thing that these are seemingly very important issues in the world of education, especially public education. Comparing NCLB proficency to NAEP proficieny is like comparing apples and oranges, Both are fruit and both grow on trees, but beyond that differences abound. If either NCLB or the NAEP results made any positive impact on curriculum, it would be worth mentioning and distributing. The problem is that neither test yeilds any useful data on curriculum reform. Tests are only indicators and do nothing to improve knowledge per se. It is like claiming to have cured a fever with a thermometer. Students everywhere need more positive learning experiences and far less testing.

If an individual state uses a standardized test to to measure proficiency and that state creates its own tests and set their own grading policies,(usually a secret process known only to those in power and the statisticians) then obviously there no way we can have a meaningful discussion about topics such as what it means to be proficient as a nation. Most comparisons cannot be made and discussed meaningfully from a position of low visibility. Most teachers teach under those kinds of conditions, because we have to meet standards and test them while never really knowing how much our students really know - the state simply gives a scale score or a number with the words "proficient" next to them. Who really knows what is going on in that case? It's like working in a fog!

Forget standardized test proficiency!

What about the programs we are expected to follow that don't permit proficiency?

My kids can pass the test all day, every day, but I always feel I have done them an injustice by not expanding their knowledge base and understanding of what really matters in this world, rather then teaching "skills" only.

Have we become technical education?

Who says that just because some doctor of education that has been developing reading materials for three decades know what he's doing?

This "doctor" is more than likely so rich s/he can't possibly REALLY care, and probably so old, s/he only knows one repetitive pattern of teaching anyway. Think about it.

Many say that teachers are failing students.

I personally believe this to be true now that we don't get the opportunity to:

*become inspired to write by going outside to touch, see, and smell the leaves,
*feel and smell the air before it rains, while conducting an experiment on humidity, or
*learn the circumference of the circle on a basketball court by really DOING it!

We are destroying children. Teachers need to wake up and smell the coffee!

Wandering around like an automaton while kids are being measured to arbitrarily determined grading standards, the determination of which are NOT (thanks, A Smith) provided to the teachers who are expected to meet them (Woah! They won't get it!), will NEVER solve this problem.

Most teachers complain, but do not take the initiative to discuss this "dumbing-down" of our children with anyone who can help them make a difference. Those of us who do try are shunned - the standard response being "Blame it on the state."- because they really don't want to hear from that lone soldier. OR, maybe it's because when there is money to be had, districts are willing to prostitute themselves to get it.

We need to unite - conduct research, survey teachers, write our own reports about what TEACHERS believe should be done.

Until teachers forge a community of members supporting children's needs rather than complaining then recharging for the next computing day, NOTHING will happen. I know, I've tried. I am now tolerated.

Now, I must go. My battery is low.

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