Feasibility of the Goal of all Students Reaching "Proficient" on State Tests

The level "proficient" varies substantially from state to state, depending on the difficulty of the test and how/where the state set its cutoff point for "proficient." Massachusetts, for example, is quite stringent, so that only 20% of tenth graders are labeled "proficient," though MA consistently scores among the top states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Use of the NAEP levels is itself controversial: a series of major reports found the levels-setting process was so flawed as to make the levels misleading, particularly by underestimating the actual achievement of students.

In reading at grades 4 and 8, NAEP results for the past decade have hovered around 30 percent of students reaching the "proficient" level, while at grade 12, about 40 percent reach proficient.

In math, the results are more uneven as the percentage reaching proficient has increased unevenly in the three tested grades from 1990 to 1996 (new results are to be released this summer). As of 1996, only about one in five 4th graders, one in four 8th graders, and one in seven 12th graders reached "proficient."

In both subjects, for all students in the nation to reach "proficient" on NAEP within 10-12 years will require a level of success in raising test scores that has never before been approached, never mind attained. In fact, in the 1990s only seven states raised their NAEP grade four reading scores while three actually declined. Nationally, scores of the lower-scoring quartile of students declined.

A massive infusion of resources not only for schools, but also for pre- and after-school and summer programs, and for resolving aspects of poverty that clearly affect student achievement (e.g., high mobility rates; lead paint; nutrition; medical and dental care) might lead to substantial progress toward this goal, but the proposed resources in the bill are completely inadequate to the task. Thus, the law will hold schools accountable for not accomplishing the impossible.

Meanwhile, over 3/5 of fourth graders and nearly 3/4 of 8th and 12th graders reached "basic or above" in NAEP reading in 1998; and nearly 2/3 of those assessed by NAEP math reached the "basic" or above levels in 1996 (many special needs or ELL students were not assessed). In both subject areas, on the order of 1/3 of all students are "below basic." Regardless of problems with levels-setting on NAEP, it is clear that a great many students are not now being educated to some reasonable level of adequacy. This should not be ignored in the effort to attain "proficiency."

Additionally, the scores that will be used to make determinations of "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) are too unreliable to use for this purpose. The legislation requires that tests be "reliable and valid," yet it mandates procedures based on inescapably inconsistent data. One major piece of recent research found that using test score gains to determine which schools were to be rewarded and which were to be sanctioned was similar to a lottery. In the past few years, the testing industry has repeatedly made major errors in test design, scoring and reporting that have had serious, harmful consequences for students and schools. These same companies will have to approximately double the volume of business they handle to meet the expanded federal testing requirements in ESEA. They will be more likely to make significant errors as they rapidly expand. Thus, the inherent unreliability in the data proposed to be used for AYP is compounded by test company inadequacy.

If the point is to set a long-range desired "goal" of all students reaching "proficient" as a general target, then perhaps the issue would not be of great concern. It would be similar to the educational goals set at Charlottesville more than a decade ago, none of which have come close to being reached. If, however, the point is to create mechanisms to enforce "proficiency for all" without providing the social and educational resources to actually attain that goal, this approach will not succeed and, through the enforcement provisions, probably create chaos.