NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

What Does It Mean to Be Proficient?

August 16, 2011

Across the country, student performance on standardized reading and math tests is worse than most states lead parents to believe, according to a new report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), an arm of the federal Education Department, says the Washington Times.

  • Under current law, states set their own benchmarks for student proficiency, but those bars are often far below the standards used by the federal government.
  • Only Massachusetts meets the federal threshold, according to the report.
  • The survey examined data from 2005 to 2009 and found that many states decreased proficiency standards over that four-year span.
  • The trend has lessened in recent years; from 2007 to 2009, only South Carolina and New Jersey lowered the bar, while some states set it higher.

NCES' report cites Tennessee as having the lowest thresholds, but over the past two years, the state has reversed course and raised its standards significantly, drawing praise from Education Secretary Arne Duncan for finally deciding to "tell the truth" to students, parents, teachers and officials.  But the truth hurts.

  • By raising the bar, Tennessee now reports fewer students proficient in reading and math.
  • Under the old standard, the state reported that 91 percent of its students were proficient in math.
  • After the change, only 34 percent fall into that category.

Source: Ben Wolfgang, "Schools Mislead Parents by Dumbing Down Meaning of 'Proficient,'" Washington Times, August 10, 2011.  "Mapping State Proficiency Standards onto the NAEP Scales: Variation and Change in State Standards for Reading and Mathematics, 2005-2009," National Center for Education Statistics, August 2011.

For text:

For study:


Browse more articles on Education Issues