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New report: Georgia telling parents tall tales when it pronounces their kids proficient


A new report by the national education advocacy group Achieve finds Georgia sets the lowest bar in the country for student proficiency in math and reading.

The study compares the percentage of Georgia students scoring proficient on the CRCT in 2013-14 against those attaining a proficient level on the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as NAEP.

A national test given to select students in every state, NAEP is the only nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas.

Because students across the nation take the same NAEP assessment, state-to-state comparisons can be made.

"Proficient" on NAEP means a student is performing at the top levels of what could be expected for the grade. The discrepancies between the performance of Georgia students on NAEP and the CRCT could be due to several factors. NAEP could too hard, although that wouldn’t explain why students in some states do well on it. It could be the CRCT is too easy or the cut score for proficiency is set too low in Georgia.

Achieve says there's an honesty gap in what states tell parents about their students' preparedness for college and career and how well those students really stack up to peers around the country based on NAEP results.

Based on how many Georgia kids judged proficient by the CRCT end up scoring below proficient on the NAEP, the state wins the whopper of the year award.

Georgia leads the nation in the gap between what it deemed proficient in 8th grade reading and what NAEP defined as proficient; there was a 65 percentage point difference  between Georgia's reported 2013-14 proficiency levels and the state’s 2013 NAEP proficiency level.

It also has the greatest gap in 4th grade reading, 60 percentage points.

In 8th grade math, Georgia led the nation with a 53 point gap. In 4th grade math, we had a 43 percentage point gap, the second highest in the nation after Louisiana.

Critics contend NAEP expects unrealistically high performances from students, but several states have similar standards to NAEP based on their test comparisons, including New York, Wisconsin, Utah, Alabama, Massachusetts, Missouri, Minnesota and Tennessee.

On a media call this morning with reporters, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said his state committed to stop lying to parents by telling them their children were proficient when they weren't.

A decade ago, Haslam said 90 percent of Tennessee students were deemed proficient based on state testing. Yet, 70 percent of the students attending community colleges in the state required remediation.

"When we set our own standards, we were defining proficiency standards that were way too low," he said. "There is no way you can have 90 percent proficient, and then when students got to community college, 70 percent need remediation."

Along with adopting Common Core, using its federal Race to the Top grant to innovate and listening to educators in the state, Haslam said Tennessee asked more of its teachers and students. And it has paid off, he said.

"Tennessee made the largest gains in the last round of NAEP testing. Largest gains in history and Tennessee have rarely been used in the same sentence before," Haslam said.

Michael Cohen, president for Achieve, noted Georgia and other states have now adopted new tests that purportedly better measure critical thinking and problem-solving. "My hope is that we will see a closing of this gap the next time states report their results,” said Cohen.

He also warned states need the political courage to accept more rigorous tests could produce lower rates of students reaching proficiency levels, saying, "If you are improving your tests...this is not a time to retreat. Stay the course even in the face of political pressures out there."

Here is the official statement from Achieve:

Achieve today released a new report that highlights the fact that too often, state-reported proficiency rates in English Language Arts (ELA)/literacy and mathematics are disconnected from other benchmarks of readiness and vary widely from state to state.

The report, "Proficient vs. Prepared: Disparities between State Tests and the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)," details the discrepancies between student proficiencies as reported by states to students, parents, and educators, and as reported by NAEP, considered the gold standard of student assessment for comparisons across state lines.

Over the past two years, many states report proficiency rates more than 30 percentage points higher than their 2013 NAEP proficiency rates, leading parents and educators to believe that far more students are succeeding in grade-level ELA/literacy and mathematics than is actually the case.

"Parents and educators deserve honest, accurate information about how well their students are performing, and the extent to which they have a solid foundation for their continued learning," said Michael Cohen, President of Achieve. "Tests are not the only source of this information, but they are certainly an important one. We don't do our students any favors if we don't level with them when test results come back."

NAEP, also known as the "nation's report card," is the only assessment with comparable results for all 50 states. NAEP is administered to a representative sample of students from all 50 states every two years. The main NAEP assessment for reading and mathematics, which provides results for individual states, can be compared with previous assessment years going back to 1990. State participation was optional until 2003, the year all states were required to participate.

The Achieve report includes state-reported proficiency data from the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years compared with 2013 NAEP results. Some states have made progress in closing the honesty gap by switching to new assessments aligned to their college- and career-ready state academic standards in the 2013-14 school year.

Faced with clear evidence that too many students graduate from high school without the academic skills necessary for success in college and careers, every state has adopted new college- and career-ready academic standards in recent years. This school year (2014-15), many more states are administering new tests aligned to their college- and career-ready standards.

"Giving tests that are well-aligned to rigorous standards is an important step. To provide students, parents, and educators with more accurate information, states must also set rigorous 'cut scores' so that 'proficiency' means that students have a solid grasp of the material. Leaders in many states are already taking steps in this direction. Unfortunately, in some states there is political pressure to abandon this goal by undermining new assessments and going back to using less rigorous tests," continued Cohen. "If we want to improve educational outcomes for children, we need to have good assessments and be honest about the results."

Historically, this publicly available data has been similarly compiled and compared by the National Center for Education Statistics, the Education Trust,  and has been included in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Leaders and Laggards report.

Fourth grade reading has been highlighted as a gateway grade because learning to read by this grade sets the foundation for reading to learn throughout the rest of a student's academic career. Likewise, eighth grade math has been highlighted because students need to have this foundation to be able to continue on through higher level math in high school. The full report is available here.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.