Are Higher Proficiency Standards Here to Stay?

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source: Green & Write, February 9, 2016

Last year was an important one in the world of standardized testing. For many states, the 2014-2015 school year witnessed the first administration of new Common Core-aligned standardized tests. The new tests were considerably more difficult than previous ones, and as a result, scores across the nation dropped tremendously. In Louisiana, for example, the number of students scoring proficient in 7th-grade mathematics plummeted from 73% to 22%. Here in Michigan, 4th-grade Language Arts scores dropped from 70% to 47%.

While these outcomes may seem disappointing at first glance, a study published in the journal Education Next suggests that there is actually some good news underlying these results: States have finally begun to raise proficiency standards (the minimum score students must earn in order to pass their standardized test and be deemed proficient). In fact, spurred by the demands of the Common Core, many states’ proficiency thresholds now appear to be on par with other national and international tests, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This is a significant development. Prior to adoption of the Common Core, states individually developed their own tests and set their own proficiency thresholds. In order to appear successful and avoid accountability sanctions, states sometimes set the bar for success comically low. At one point, for instance, Michigan 3rd-graders had to only score above the 6th percentile to be deemed proficient. Unsurprisingly, almost all students were deemed proficient on the state tests while scores were much lower on national tests like the NAEP.

For the past ten years, researchers at Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance have given states an A-F grade based on how their proficiency standards compare with those of the NAEP. As late as 2009, only one state (Massachusetts) received an A, and over twenty states received a D or F. Since 2011, though, 45 states have raised their proficiency standards, and the grades have risen accordingly. In 2015, 24 states received an A, and 9 more received a B+.

In at least one sense then, the Common Core has succeeded in raising academic standards, and the authors of the study are optimistic that these higher proficiency thresholds are here to stay: “With the passage of ESSA, which eliminated NCLB sanctions for most schools, states find themselves under less pressure to set lax proficiency standards…[the new policy environment] may facilitate the increasing rigor of state standards.”

Reasons to be Wary

Holding students to higher standards is a laudable goal, but I am less optimistic that the higher proficiency standards will hold up over time. When the lower scores were released this fall, states embarked on coordinated damage control campaigns to calm the nerves of parents and educators who might be alarmed by the score declines. Education officials dismissed the poor performance as a normal growing pain in the Common Core transition, and they repeatedly reminded stakeholders that the results were just a temporary by-product of higher standards.

More people could get over this bar if it were lower.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

More people could get over this bar if it were lower. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

But this argument can only remain compelling for so long. In a couple of years, after the Common Core is fully implemented, policymakers will be under renewed pressure to explain why test score performance in their state remains low. Campaign ads will appear lambasting political figures for their stewardship of academic mediocrity. District leaders, believing the low scores misrepresent the performance of their schools or the sentiments of local parents, will lobby state officials to lower proficiency standards or water down the tests. And new leaders will eventually gain power in statehouses by promising to usher in a new era of educational excellence – only to find that raising academic achievement is more difficult than imagined. Over time, political pressure will build to create the illusion of success by manipulating the proficiency standards, beginning anew the cycle that brought us low standards originally.

When thinking about what test results actually mean, it’s important to remember that numbers are just manmade phenomena. They tend to mean only whatever the people who create them want them to mean, and they can be (and often are) manipulated to paint a picture of reality that is deceptively rosy or despairing. Political scientist Deborah Stone urges us to think of numbers as operating a lot like poetry or metaphors. Just as we can describe an experience an infinite number of ways using words, so too can we describe reality in an infinite number of ways using numbers.

The notion that the removal of NCLB’s federal sanctions will promote an era of more rigorous testing is an overly sunny prognostication. While NCLB is now off the books, the law nevertheless wrought long-lasting change by begetting in education the fear of failure and the belief that individual schools, educators, and policymakers should be held accountable for very complex educational problems. At the same time, no parent likes to be told that their child isn’t very bright, or that their neighborhood school is a failure. It will always be easier to change the numbers by quietly lowering cut scores or making the tests easier than it will be to solve complicated issues of teaching and learning.

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David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.