NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


December 2, 2005

Discrepancies between the results of state and national proficiency tests have intensified the national debate over testing and accountability, with some educators saying that numerous states have created easy exams to avoid the sanctions that President Bush's centerpiece education law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), imposes on consistently low-scoring schools.

  • A comparison of state test results against the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federal test mandated by NCLB, found some 89 percent of Mississippi fourth graders performed at or above proficiency on state reading tests, while only 18 percent demonstrated proficiency on the NAEP.
  • Oklahoma, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Alaska, Texas and more than a dozen other states all showed students doing far better on their own reading and math tests than on the federal one.

NCLB requires states to participate in NAEP but allows them to use their own tests to meet the law's central mandate -- that schools increase the percentage of students demonstrating proficiency each year, reaching 100 percent proficiency by 2014. Because states that fail to raise scores over time face serious sanctions, there is little incentive to make the exams difficult, say some educators.

Other educators and experts give different reasons for the discrepancy between state and federal test results. A Standard & Poor's report listed many reasons:

  • The National Assessment is a no-stakes test, while low scores on state tests lead to sanctions against schools.
  • NAEP is given to a sampling of students, whereas schools administer state tests to nearly all students.
  • The tests serve different purposes; the federal one gives policymakers a snapshot of student performance nationwide, while state tests provide data about individual performance.

Researchers say some states' tests are just easier, however not all states have set the bar low. State results in South Carolina, Missouri, Wyoming and Maine tracked closely with the federal exam.

Source: Sam Dillon, "Students Ace State Tests, but Earn D's From U.S.," New York Times, November 26, 2005.

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