The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What do students need to know to be “proficient” in reading and math? It depends on where they live.

Close of of hand filling out answers on a multiple choice exam.

No Child Left Behind, the much-maligned 2002 federal education law, required schools to ensure that all students were proficient in math and reading by 2014.

But what does “proficient” mean? It depends on where you live.

A new federal report released Thursday found a huge variation in how states defined “proficiency” on their 2013 standardized tests. In states with the lowest expectations, “proficiency” was three to four grade levels below proficiency in states with the highest expectations.

That means that fourth-grade expectations in one state could be equivalent to seventh- or eighth-grade expectations in another, said Gary Phillips, a vice president for the American Institutes of Research.
“States are setting wildly different standards and most states are setting very low standards,” Phillips said.

Most states have switched tests since 2013, and this spring they began taking exams aligned to the Common Core State Standards. As the Common Core and its tests have become political lightning rods, Core proponents have often pointed to the wide variability of individual state standards as a reason common expectations are needed.

[What happens when the Common Core becomes less common?]

The new report from the National Center for Educational Statistics compares students’ performance on their own state tests in 2013 to their performance on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Performance, or NAEP, the only national exam that allows an apples-to-apples comparison of student achievement across state lines.

A fourth-grade student must score at least 238 on NAEP’s 500-point scale in order to be considered proficient in reading on that test; students who score below 208 are considered to have “below basic” knowledge.

But Georgia, for example, has a much lower bar: proficiency on its state test is equivalent to a score of just 167 on NAEP, according to the analysis. New York has a higher bar than NAEP: Its proficiency bar is equivalent to a score of 243 on NAEP.

In the graph below you can see how every state’s “proficiency” bar maps against the NAEP scale in fourth-grade reading. New York and Wisconsin are the only states with a higher proficiency bar than NAEP, while dozens of states have definitions of “proficient” that fall within NAEP’s “below basic” category.

In fourth-grade math, more states have proficiency standards that lie within NAEP’s “basic” category.

This is the fifth such analysis of student performance on NAEP versus state tests that the federal government has completed during the past decade. Over time, many states have made their tests more difficult, and fewer states have a proficiency bar that falls within NAEP’s “below basic” category.

Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scales Results From the 2013 NAEP Reading and Mathematics Assessments.