A federal report out today reinforces the notion that when it comes to state standards, proficiency is still in the eye of the beholder.
A top-scoring student on Arizona's reading test may fall far below average in states with more rigorous exams, like Massachusetts or Wisconsin.
The new report, by the National Center for Education Statistics, compares each state's performance on state tests with their performance on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Performance – or NAEP.
Often called the "Nation's Report Card," NAEP is widely considered the gold standard for measuring performance in math and reading for grades four and eight.
It's always been difficult to compare academic performance between states because many states have their own tests – aligned to their own standards. And it's one of the problems the Common Core is aimed at fixing.
The data in the new report are from 2013, before the new tests aligned with the Common Core were rolled out in many states.
Comparing state tests to the NAEP helps to contextualize performance between states — apples to apples. Since 2003, this comparison has exposed huge differences in what states consider proficient, or at-grade-level and what NAEP defines as proficient.
"Good assessments that are aligned well with good standards are very important," says Patte Barth, the director of the Center for Public Education, a policy arm of the National School Boards Association. "It gives everybody a good idea of what an eighth-grade student should know."
NAEP breaks scores down into three levels: below basic, basic and proficient.
The scores required for those achievement levels vary for different grades and for different subjects.
To be proficient in math, for example, a fourth-grade student would need to score at least a 249 on NAEP's 500-point scale. A score below 214, is considered below basic and scores in between are basic.
In Alabama, to be proficient on state tests in math, students need to score the equivalent of a 207 on the NAEP –- by NAEP standards well below basic. By Kentucky standards, students needed an equivalent of 246 to be proficient — which falls on the high end of NAEP's basic level.
The report gives similar comparisons for fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math and reading.
You can see our breakdown of the analysis here:
There is some good news. As a nation, the new report finds, the U.S. is getting better at math. But in reading, the states with good scores are getting better and the lower performing states are flat. So the range of what is deemed proficient is growing.
New York was the only state that reached NAEP's proficiency range for fourth- and eighth-graders in both subjects, not a surprise, as they raised their standards ahead of the 2013 state tests.
Other states that fared well: Wisconsin, North Carolina, Texas and Massachusetts were all proficient in at least one grade and one subject.
Experts suggest the bigger takeaway is for lower-performing states, like Alabama, Georgia and Idaho.
"It highlights the importance of lower-performing states to look at their standards, their assessments, their curriculum," says Barth. "Are the standards high enough? Will it make their students competitive?"
"If you have low standards and that's where you're aiming, you're never going to exceed that," she says.
It's unclear how these findings will be affected in future years by the new Common Core-aligned tests states are giving. Those test are intended to be more comparable for the millions of students who took them this spring.
Still, the report reinforces the need for high standards and rigorous state tests, says Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a nonprofit education research group.
"If we want students to graduate with the skills and knowledge expected by postsecondary education and employers, states must make sure that 'proficient' means that students are well prepared," Cohen says. "Many states need to do a better job leveling with students and their parents."