U.S. Children Face Low Bar to Pass State Tests

Almost all states give children math and reading proficiency exams using standards that fall short of federal benchmarks, even after eight raised their requirements since 2007, a U.S. Department of Education study found.

Indiana, Oklahoma, West Virginia and five other states raised their standards on at least one test of reading or math in fourth or eighth grades between 2007 and 2009, according to a report released today. South Carolina lowered the bar on all exams.

The study comes after U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan expressed concern that states dumb down annual proficiency tests so they can qualify for federal money under the nation’s main public education law. The No Child Left Behind law requires that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014, leaving each state free to define that measure. Duncan plans to let states ignore the deadline if they agree to raise academic standards and take other steps, he said Aug. 5.

“States need to aim higher for all students,” said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve Inc., a Washington-based nonprofit created by governors and business leaders to raise academic standards.

No Child Left Behind’s proficiency requirements create “significant obstacles” to instituting rigorous academic standards, Cohen, a former assistant secretary of education under President Bill Clinton, said in a telephone interview.

43 States Responded

The report comes as Duncan has already prodded 43 states and the District of Columbia since last year to sign onto U.S. academic standards proposed by the nation’s governors and school chiefs.

The new study, which examined a period before that effort gained steam, compared data from 2008-09 state assessments with the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called “the nation’s report card.”

The Education Department report showed how a proficiency score on a state test would translate into a score on the federal exam, which is scored on a zero to 500-point scale.

Only Massachusetts, which generally had the toughest proficiency requirements, mandated a score that would be considered proficient on most of the U.S. tests in the study.

A Massachusetts child in eighth-grade math would be considered proficient with a state score equivalent to 300 on the federal exam. A child in Tennessee, which had the lowest standards, would need only 229, according to the report.

Reading a Graph

That means a Tennessee child could be considered proficient without knowing how to read a graph, while a Massachusetts student meeting that benchmark would likely be able to solve a math problem using algebra and geometry.

Starting in 1993, Massachusetts revamped its assessments and curriculum to make them tougher, and, as a result, state students excel on national and international academic assessments, said Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education.

“People don’t rise to low expectations,” Chester said in a telephone interview. “They rise to high expectations.”

Tennessee has since changed its test to raise standards, said Kelli Gauthier, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Education.

‘Perverse Incentives’

Duncan has cited the state as an example of what he called the “perverse incentives” in No Child Left Behind. After revamping its state test, the number of Tennessee students in grades three through eight scoring proficient fell to 34 percent from 91 percent, making schools more likely to be labeled failing.

South Carolina had among the highest proficiency standards in 2007, the last year the education department studied the benchmarks. The state made the test easier to pass in 2008 because of concern so many schools were being labeled as failing under No Child Left Behind, said Jay Ragley, a spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Education.

Mick Zais, who became state superintendent in January, considers that move a mistake, Ragley said in an interview.

“South Carolina’s proficiency standards must be increased to challenge students and prepare them for success in life,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: John Hechinger in Boston at jhechinger@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Kaufman at jkaufman17@bloomberg.net

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