Student Learning Expectations Gap Twice the Size of National Black-White Achievement Gap


State Performance Standards Vary Widely

Washington, D.C. – The gap in what students are expected to know in each state varies so greatly that the difference in student expectations between the states with the most rigorous assessments and those with the least stringent is twice the size of the national black-white achievement gap, according to a new report by the American Institutes for Research (AIR).

For comparison, while black students are falling nearly two grade levels behind their white peers in knowledge and achievement, what students are expected to know in one state may be up to four grade levels behind the expectations set in another state.

At a time when student assessments are increasingly being used to judge how well students are learning, teachers are teaching and schools are performing – and the stakes involved are growing to include hiring and firing decisions, funding allocation and whether or not a school even remains open – this report draws attention to how much, or how little, these assessments actually expect students to learn and teachers to teach.

The report, International Benchmarking: State Education Performance Standards, compared the proficiency standards in each state with international benchmarks used in two international assessments to be able to compare states to each other, using a common standard, and to compare U.S. student performance with that of their peers in other countries.

The report, by AIR Vice President Gary Phillips, found dramatic differences in what students are expected to learn from state-to-state, with many states reporting high proficiency rates based on tests that reveal very low expectations. “This is a fundamental flaw in the No Child Left Behind law because it permits states to report high levels of achievement by setting low standards,” said Phillips, who previously served as acting commissioner of the federal National Center for Education Statistics.

“By setting low performance standards, states commit the educational equivalent of short selling. Rather than betting on student success, the educators sell the student short by lowering standards,” said Phillips. “What the education system gets out of this practice is the illusion of high rates of proficiency, which have a palliative effect on public opinion and meet the requirements of federal reporting. What the student gets out of it is a dumbed-down education, with little opportunity to learn college-ready and career-ready skills.”

To illustrate the differences, the report compared what is expected in Massachusetts to what is expected in the states with the lowest standards. The difference between the standards in Massachusetts and those of the states with the lowest standards was comparable to as much as four grade levels. In other words, the 8th grade performance standards in the states with the lowest standards were comparable in difficulty to the 4th grade performance standards in Massachusetts.

The report also estimated how the 2007 state results reported to the federal government for No Child Left Behind accountability would have looked had all the states used an internationally benchmarked common performance standard. When the data were reanalyzed on this level playing field, there was a dramatic drop among the states reporting the highest levels of proficiency. (See the chart here.)

For example, in Grade 8 mathematics, Tennessee dropped from 88 percent proficient to 21 percent, and Massachusetts went from being one of the lowest performing states to the highest achieving state in the nation. (Note: Since 2007, Tennessee has substantially raised its performance standards.)

Another example shows Alabama reporting 78 percent of its fourth graders proficient in math in 2007, but on an internationally-benchmarked common performance standard, just 26 percent were proficient.

“One reason states set low standards is because current methods of standard setting used in the United States do not incorporate external benchmarks as a guide posts to setting standards,” explained Phillips. “Therefore, this report recommends a new standard setting method, referred to as the “Benchmark Method” that uses national and international benchmarks to calibrate how high the state performance standard should be.”

The report can be viewed and downloaded from www.air.org.

“These results help explain why the United States continues to do poorly in international comparisons. Many states think they are doing well and feel no urgency to improve because almost all their students are proficient,” said Phillips. “They have a type of Lake Woebegone delusion where they have no idea how they stack up when compared with peers outside their own state.”

About AIR
Established in 1946, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of health, education and workforce productivity. For more information, visit www.air.org.

###