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Last summer I pointed out how wildly different academic expectations were around the country, just before the introduction of the Common Core standards. Some states set the passing marks on their annual standardized tests more than four grade levels behind those of other states. For example, back in 2013, Alabama’s passing mark on its eighth-grade reading test was roughly equivalent to what fourth graders were expected to do in New York.

The Common Core was supposed to fix this. Its backers hoped that all states would insist that their students learn enough to be prepared for college when they graduated from high school. But a recent analysis of all the new tests administered by states in 2015, after the adoption of the Common Core, shows that most states are still not expecting their students to be on a college-ready trajectory, and that academic expectations continue to differ even among the 45 states that adopted the new standards.

“What I’m showing is that states have in fact raised their standards, but they’re not as high as they should be, and they’re still varied,” said Gary Phillips, a former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics and the author of “National Benchmarks for State Achievement Standards,” published on Feb. 22, 2016, by the American Institutes for Research, where Phillips is a vice president. In a statement, Phillips also said, “We may not be going in 50 different directions anymore, but we do not have enough states setting high college-ready standards.”

Eighth-grade reading expectations, as set by each state’s 2015 test, are only college-and-career ready in three states

Legend: Purple • = proficient; Green • = just below proficient;
Orange • = basic; Red • = below basic

Zoom in and click on any state to see what each state’s proficiency mark on its 8th-grade reading test is equivalent to on the national NAEP exam. Proficiency levels could not be determined for Iowa, Nebraska and Texas. Data for Indiana were unavailable. (Interactive map created by Jill Barshay of The Hechinger Report. Source data: AIR National Benchmarks for State Achievement Standards)

More than 30 of the states that administered new tests in 2015 used one of three standardized, Common Core-aligned tests:  Smarter Balance, PARCC or ACT Aspire. Those tests lifted academic expectations compared with 2013, but each of the three tests settled upon somewhat different achievement standards, contributing to the variation in results.  For example, Phillips found that Smarter Balance standards were lower than PARCC’s. And he found that none of these three multi-state tests demanded that eighth-graders hit a “proficient” level in both math and reading, using a national yardstick.

The only three states to have set their eighth-grade passing marks at that high level in both subjects were three that had rejected those standardized tests and administered their own state-specific exams. They are Florida, New York and Kansas.

In order to measure how the states stack up against each other, Phillips translated the passing mark on each state’s test to what its equivalent score would be on a national benchmark test, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP.

For example, Phillips found that New York set its passing mark for eighth-grade English at 291, much higher than the “proficient” threshold on the NAEP exam. By contrast, Oklahoma was set 50 points lower at a 241, below “basic” on the NAEP exam.

Eighth-grade math expectations, as set by each state’s 2015 test, have increased significantly since 2013, but only 17 states are setting college-ready standards

Legend: Purple • = proficient; Green • = just below proficient;
Orange • = basic
Zoom in and click on any state to see what each state’s proficiency mark on its 8th-grade reading test is equivalent to on the national NAEP exam. Proficiency levels could not be determined for Iowa, Nebraska and Texas. Data for Indiana were unavailable. (Interactive map created by Jill Barshay of The Hechinger Report. Source data: AIR National Benchmarks for State Achievement Standards)

That’s the equivalent of more than four grade levels’ difference. But very few states have their standards set as low as Oklahoma, which withdrew from using the Common Core standards before the 2015 testing season. Most, while not “proficient,” are in the “basic” range. In addition to the three states that ask their students to be “proficient” in both subjects, another 14 states set high “proficient” thresholds in math only.

Phillips paid particular attention to states that had set their standards above or below the “proficient” threshold. That’s because the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the NAEP exam, has conducted many studies over the years to determine which scores show that a student is prepared for college or a technical career. For math, this point is just below “proficient.” For reading, the college-and-career-ready point is at “proficient.” No one expects a fourth or an eighth grader to be ready for college, but hitting that proficiency threshold is evidence that the student is on the right track to get there.

States typically test students annually, but NAEP is administered for only fourth, eighth and 12th grades. This AIR study was further limited to fourth and eighth grade only.

Using the data from the AIR study, I constructed these two color coded maps to give readers a visual sense of how many states are asking their students to meet high expectations in eighth grade. Data from four states are missing. It was unclear in Texas, Nebraska and Iowa what their passing marks were. Data for Indiana weren’t available.

Reasonable people can argue about whether states that have set goal posts just below the “proficient” threshold are setting high standards or not. For argument’s sake, I calculated how many states would be in the “high-expectations camp” if I gave them 10 extra points of wiggle room in each subject, so that states at the very high end of “basic” would be swept in. Instead of just three states setting high expectations in both subjects, the number jumped to 19.

It’s worth emphasizing that these are not measurements of how kids are actually doing. These are hopes of where we would like students to score. Indeed, very few students are meeting expectations when they are set high. For example, in New York, only 22 percent of eighth graders hit the high passing marks there. In Florida and Kansas, the other two high-expectations states, only 18 percent and 22 percent of students did so, respectively. On the flip side, 75 percent passed reading in Oklahoma, where the passing level, or “cut score,” was set at “below basic.”

“You can’t have it both ways,” said Phillips. “When you set high standards, you’re going to have failing children.”

At first glance, this study might seem to contradict another recent study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which found that the new Common Core tests do a good job testing the content of the new standards. Phillips agrees that there is tougher content on the new tests, but he says that students aren’t being required to master enough of it. He said only 20 percent of the Common Core standards are at the high “proficient” level, and if the “cut scores” aren’t set high enough, students can pass the tests without mastering any of this tough stuff.

“You can teach the Pythagorean theorem in two states, but you may not have to master it in the state that has lower standards,” he explained.

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