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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Federal Government Says That States Are Lowering Their Academic Proficiency Standards

October 30, 2009
Federal Researchers Find Lower Standards in Schools

A new federal study shows that nearly a third of the states lowered their academic proficiency standards in recent years, a step that helps schools stay ahead of sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law. But lowering standards also confuses parents about how children’s achievement compares with those in other states and countries.

The study, released Thursday, was the first by the federal Department of Education’s research arm to use a statistical comparison between federal and state tests to analyze whether states had changed their testing standards.

It found that 15 states lowered their proficiency standards in fourth- or eighth-grade reading or math from 2005 to 2007. Three states, Maine, Oklahoma and Wyoming, lowered standards in both subjects at both grade levels, the study said.

Eight states increased the rigor of their standards in one or both subjects and grades. Some states raised standards in one subject but lowered them in another, including New York, which raised the rigor of its fourth-grade-math standard but lowered the standard in eighth-grade reading, the study said.

“Over all, standards were more likely to be lower than higher,” in 2007, compared with the earlier year, said Peggy G. Carr, an associate commissioner at the department.

Under the No Child law, signed in 2002, all schools must bring 100 percent of students to the proficient level on states’ reading and math tests by 2014, and schools that fall short of rising annual targets face sanctions. In California, for instance, elementary schools must raise the percentage of students scoring above the proficient level by 11 percentage points every year from now through 2014.

Facing this challenge, the study found that some states had been redefining proficiency down, allowing a lower score on a state test to qualify as proficient.

“At a time when we should be raising standards to compete in the global economy, more states are lowering the bar than raising it,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. “We’re lying to our children.”

The 15 states that lowered one or more standards were Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Eight that raised one or more standards were Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Louis Fabrizio, a director at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said that under the No Child law, states face a dilemma. “When you set standards, do you want to show success under N.C.L.B. by having higher percentages of students at proficiency, in which case you’ll set lower standards?” Mr. Fabrizio asked. “Or do you want to do the right thing for kids, by setting them higher so they’re comparable with our global competitors?”

In the study, researchers compared the results of state tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2005 and 2007, identifying a score on the national assessment that was equivalent to each state’s definition of proficiency.

The study found wide variation among states, with standards highest in Massachusetts and South Carolina. Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee had standards that were among the lowest.

Forty-eight states are working cooperatively to create common academic standards. Authorities in Texas and Alaska declined to join the effort.

Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said it was unlikely that the effort would soon produce a nationwide system that would allow parents and employers to easily compare test results from state to state, partly, he said, because “states would still have to agree on a common test.”

“And that’s heavy lifting,” Mr. Whitehurst said.