State Test Score Trends Through 2007-08, Part 1: Is the Emphasis on "Proficiency" Shortchanging Higher- and Lower-Achieving Students?

Mickey Muldoon

Center on Education Policy
June 2009

In this review of post-NCLB state test scores, CEP questions the fate of low- and high-performers under current "proficiency" metrics. Has an emphasis on a quantifiable middle point meant ignoring the tail ends of this bell curve? The answer, according to this study, is no; low-achievers and high-achievers aren't doing worse on average, even as NCLB encourages schools to zero in on the "bubble kids" just below proficiency. In particular, the study suggests that students in all age groups, in all subjects, and at all achievement levels are scoring at higher levels in 2008 than in 2002, at least on state tests. Those in the "proficient-and-above" category tended to see the largest gains, though that might be because state tests are designed to measure the performance of students near the "proficiency" line most accurately. However, state tests may not be the best way to examine gains by high-achieving students. Because most tests are set at laughably low levels, the best students tend to "top out" on them; we can't get an accurate read of their performance. Furthermore, the study merely reported whether there are more or fewer students at the "advanced" level (itself a target that's not necessarily all that advanced in most states), not whether the top students themselves made significant gains over time. This is a profound distinction, and one that is addressed in Tom Loveless's Fordham study from last year, which used NAEP data to track gains for the top ten percent of students; he found them to be "languid." Read the CEP report here.