Keeping an Eye on State Standards: A Race to the Bottom?

Frederick Hess and Paul E. Peterson
Year of publication: 
Education Next

While No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requires all students to be “ proficient” in math and reading by 2014, the precedent-setting 2002 federal law also allows each state to determine its own level of proficiency. It’ s an odd discordance at best. It has led to the bizarre situation in which some states achieve handsome proficiency results by grading their students against low standards, while other states suffer poor proficiency ratings only because they have high standards.

A year ago, we first sought to quantify this discrepancy (“ Johnny Can Read … in Some States, ” features, Summer 2005), showing which states were upholding rigorous standards and which were not.

We return to the subject now, with the latest available data, to update our ratings. The standard we again use is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the nation’ s “ report card, ” and still the only metric that allows strict comparisons between states. For each state where both NAEP and state accountability measures were available, we computed a score based on the difference between the percentage of students said to be proficient by the state and the percentage identified as proficient on the NAEP in years 2003 and 2005.

We are not evaluating state tests, nor are we grading states on the performance of their students. Instead, we are checking for “ truth in advertising, ” investigating whether the proficiency levels mean what they say. We are thus able to ascertain whether states lowered the bar for student proficiency as the full panoply of NCLB provisions took effect.

When we conducted the first of our checkups on the rigor of the standards, we gave each state the same kind of grade students receive. Where the requisite information was available, states with the highest standards were given an A; those with the lowest standards, an F. Last year, the requisite data were available for only 40 states. This time around, 48 states have been graded, including nine “ new” states providing the necessary information for the first time (see Figure 1). While the fact that these nine are now in compliance with NCLB is a laudable accomplishment, it is not clear how committed they are to the enterprise: among the nine, only the District of Columbia and New Mexico scored a grade higher than C, and Nebraska, Utah, Iowa, Oregon, and Nevada could do no better than a mediocre C or D. The first grades garnered by Alabama, Nebraska, and West Virginia were D minuses. Clearly, student proficiency has entirely different meanings in different parts of the country.