tested its eighth-grade students in math this year, state officials at
a jubilant news conference called the results a "cause for
celebration." Eighty-seven percent of students performed at or above
the proficiency level.
But when the federal government
made public the findings of its own tests last month, the results were
startlingly different: only 21 percent of Tennessee's eighth graders
were considered proficient in math.
Such discrepancies 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, imposes on consistently low-scoring schools.
A comparison of state test results against the latest National
Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal test mandated by the No
Child Left Behind law, shows that wide discrepancies between the state
and federal findings were commonplace.
In Mississippi, 89
percent of fourth graders performed at or above proficiency on state
reading tests, while only 18 percent of fourth graders demonstrated
proficiency on the federal test. 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.
The chasm is significant because of the
compromises behind the No Child Left Behind law. The law requires
states to participate in the National Assessment - known to educators
as NAEP (pronounced nape) - the most important federal measure of
But in a bow to states' rights, states are
allowed to use their own tests in meeting the law's central mandate -
that schools increase the percentage of students demonstrating
proficiency each year. The law requires 100 percent of the nation's
students to reach proficiency - as each state defines it - by 2014.
States set the stringency of their own tests as well as the number of
questions students must answer correctly to be labeled proficient. And
because states that fail to raise scores over time face serious
sanctions, there is little incentive to make the exams difficult, some
"Under No Child Left Behind, the states get to
set the proficiency bar wherever they like, and unfortunately most are
setting it quite low," said Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president of
the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which generally supports the federal
"They're telling the public in their states that huge
numbers of students are proficient, but the NAEP results show that's
not the case," Mr. Petrilli said.
Other educators and experts
give different reasons for the discrepancy between state and federal
test results. A Standard & Poor's report this fall listed many
reasons for such differences, among them that the National Assessment
is a no-stakes test, while low scores on state tests lead to sanctions
The report noted that the National Assessment
is given to a sampling of students, whereas schools administer state
tests to nearly all students. The tests serve different purposes, with
the federal one giving policy makers a snapshot of student performance
across the nation, while state tests provide data about individual
performance. Because of these differences, some state officials say it
is unfair to compare the test results.
But the report by Standard
& Poor's, which has a division that analyzes educational data, also
noted some states' tests are just easier.
G. Gage Kingsbury,
director of research at the Northwest Evaluation Association, a
nonprofit group that administers tests in 1,500 districts nationwide,
said states that set their proficiency standards before No Child Left
Behind became law had tended to set them high.
"The idea back
then was that we needed to be competitive with nations like Hong Kong
and Singapore," he said. "But our research shows that since N.C.L.B.
took effect, states have set lower standards."
Not all have a low bar. In South Carolina, Missouri, Wyoming and Maine, state results tracked closely with the federal exam.
South Carolina is a state that set world-class standards, Mr.
Kingsbury said. The math tests there are so difficult that only 23
percent of eighth graders scored at or above the proficiency level this
year, compared with 30 percent on the federal math test. South Carolina
officials now fear that such rigor is coming back to haunt them.
"We set very high standards for our tests, and unfortunately it's put
us at a great disadvantage," said Inez M. Tenenbaum, the state
superintendent of education. "We thought other states would be
high-minded too, but we were mistaken."
South Carolina's tough exams make it harder for schools there to show the annual testing gains demanded by the federal law.
This year less than half of the state's 1,109 schools met the federal
law's benchmark for the percentage of students showing proficiency, a
challenge that will get tougher each year. As a result, legislators are
pushing to lower the state's proficiency standard, Ms. Tenenbaum said,
an idea she opposes.
Because of the discrepancies, several
prominent educators are now calling for a system of national testing
that counts, like those at the heart of educational systems in England,
France and Japan.
"We need national standards and national
tests," said Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University who is a
former member of the National Assessment's board. "I conclude that
states are just looking to make everybody feel good."
Tenenbaum too says the differences among states have convinced her of
the need for a national test. "I think we should all just take the
NAEP," she said. "Get it out of the states' hands."
Representative John A. Boehner, chairman of the House Committee on
Education and the Work Force, defended states' rights to define
proficiency as they see fit and said that over time comparisons with
the federal test would force them to draw up better tests.
bright lights of accountability are going to shine on the states who
are kidding themselves," said Mr. Boehner, Republican of Ohio.
battle lines have long been sharp in the testing debate. Most corporate
leaders favor national testing, said Susan Traiman, a director at the
Business Roundtable, a group that represents corporate executives.
Opponents include liberal groups that dislike all standardized testing;
the testing industry itself, which has found lucrative profits in
writing new exams for all 50 states; and political conservatives who
fiercely resist any intrusion on states' rights to control curricula
Margaret Spellings, the secretary of education, says
that the comparison of state and federal tests provides useful
information. "It allows us to shine a light," she said. "This is a
truth-in-advertising type deal."
But Ms. Spellings has declined
to criticize states whose tests appear to overstate the percentage of
their students who are proficient. The law leaves it to states to
calibrate their accountability systems, including how difficult they
make their exams, she said. "We're not going to sit up in Washington
and look at all those moving parts," Ms. Spellings said.
National Assessment uses three performance levels to classify student
results: advanced, which denotes superior performance; proficient,
which indicates that students have "demonstrated competency" and basic,
which indicates students have attained only "partial mastery of
prerequisite knowledge and skills." Many students also score below
basic, which the National Assessment's governing board does not
classify as an achievement level.
On Oct. 19, the day the
federal results were released, Ms. Spellings urged reporters to compare
the percentage of students performing at the proficiency level on state
tests with the percentage of students performing at the basic level on
the federal test.
Many state officials said they also preferred
that comparison, which greatly softens the discrepancies. In Tennessee,
for instance, the 66-point gap between the federal and state results in
eighth-grade math shrinks to just 26 points if the state results are
compared with the federal measure of basic skills.
is comparable to our proficient," said Kim Karesh, a spokeswoman for
the Tennessee Department of Education. "Now whether Tennessee's test is
stringent enough is something that we're reviewing constantly. Nobody
here would say we have a perfect test."
Officials in many other
states whose scores differed sharply from those of the National
Assessment cried foul over the very idea of comparing the results.
comparison to NAEP is not fair," said Mitch Edwards, a spokesman for
the Department of Education in Alabama, where 83 percent of
fourth-grade students scored at or above proficient on the state's
reading test while only 22 percent demonstrated proficiency on the
federal reading test. "Making comparisons to the NAEP becomes very
difficult without giving the impression that some states are not
measuring up to others or to the nation."
In Georgia, 83 percent
of eighth graders scored at or above proficient on state reading tests,
compared with just 24 percent on the federal test. "Kids know the
federal test doesn't really count," said Dana Tofig, a spokesman for
the State Department of Education. "So it's not a fair comparison; it's
not apples to apples."