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States' school standards vary widely

Published June 8, 2007


WASHINGTON - A reading score that rates a fourth-grader "proficient" in Mississippi would be a failing score in Massachusetts, according to a report released Thursday by the Education Department.

The wide variations found in how states assess student progress are certain to fuel debate about whether the federal No Child Left Behind law should be overhauled to make standards more uniform from state to state.

The study compared what it takes to be rated "proficient" on elementary- and middle-school state reading and math tests to what it means to hit that mark on national tests. It found that most of the scores that would label a student proficient on state tests don't yield that grade on the national tests.

There also are huge differences in where states set their benchmarks.

Massachusetts sets the proficiency score on its fourth-grade reading test just below the proficiency mark on the national test. But a fourth-grader in Mississippi can be rated proficient with a state test score that is more than 70 points lower. Proficiency is defined as working at the level expected for that grade.

The tests given by the states are used to judge schools under No Child Left Behind, the five-year-old education law that is up for renewal this year.

States pick their own tests and set their own achievement scores. When too few students in a school meet proficiency standards, that school typically faces consequences such as having to swap out principals or teachers. States that set high standards generally have fewer students labeled as proficient than states with low standards.

The national test, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, is a rigorous exam given in a variety of subjects to students nationwide. It doesn't have consequences attached to it like those linked to the state tests. But it does offer a way to compare states to one another.

Susan Fuhrman, president of Columbia University's Teachers College, says educators have long known that solid standards aren't a silver bullet.

"It's not enough to set standards and test achievement on them. There's a lot of other stuff that has to happen instructionally, " she said.

Fast Facts:

Other findings

-Eighth-graders in North Carolina had to demonstrate the least knowledge to be considered proficient readers, while students in Wyoming had to show the most.

-Tennessee set the lowest bar on the fourth-grade math test, while Massachusetts set the highest one.

-In eighth-grade math, Missouri set the highest standard - 12 points above the national one; Tennessee has the lowest, 69 points below the national bar.

[Last modified June 8, 2007, 01:34:00]

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