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New York

Don’t Listen to Diane: ‘Proficiency’ Means Exactly What You Think It Means

Last week, Diane Ravitch wrote a cheery piece on her blog about a story asserting that Gov. Andrew Cuomo may be shifting his position on the use of state assessments to measure teacher evaluations. In doing so, she included this note regarding NAEP proficiency (emphasis hers):
PLEASE NOTE IN THE NEW YORK TIMES’ STORY THAT THE REPORTER REFERS TO NAEP PROFICIENCY AS “GRADE LEVEL.” THIS IS WRONG. NAEP PROFICIENCY IS NOT GRADE LEVEL; IT IS EQUIVALENT TO AN A OR A-. NAEP “BASIC” IS A CLOSE APPROXIMATION OF GRADE LEVEL. MOST NEW YORK STUDENTS ARE BASIC OR ABOVE ON NAEP.
This isn’t the first time Ravitch has made this claim in an effort to make it an accepted part of the narrative. In fact, she has been  trying to lower the bar for NAEP achievement  for years. The problem, of course, is that it is demonstrably false. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has a pretty helpful set of facts about the NAEP, including straightforward explanations for the different achievement levels. There are three achievement levels—basic, proficient and advanced—defined as follows:
  • Basic: Partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.
  • Proficient: Solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.
  • Advanced: Superior performance.
NCES goes on to explain that the achievement levels are cumulative, meaning achievement at each higher level signals that the student has mastered whatever is being asked at the lower achievement level. Then there’s this last nugget:
The Board believes, however, that all students should reach the Proficient level; the Basic level is not the desired goal, but rather represents partial mastery that is a step toward Proficient.
I’m not sure it gets any more straightforward than that. NAEP clearly sets the goal at proficient. “Demonstrated competency”—would you want your children or your students achieving anything less? So why does Ravitch continually insist on promoting false information? I think the key is in the last part of her note: “Most New York students are basic and above on NAEP.” This is true across the country—the  results look much better if you’re looking at basic instead of proficient, which is in Ravitch’s interest since she’s trying to defend the status quo in education. If proficiency is the bar, achievement across the country is  pretty dismal. Fewer than 1 in 3 eighth graders and less than half of fourth graders are proficient in math. In reading, only about 1 in 3 fourth and eighth graders are proficient. But if you’re looking at basic achievement, well, most students are already there: 82 percent of fourth graders achieve at the basic level in math and 69 percent do so in reading, while about 75 percent of eighth-graders achieve at that level in both math and reading. Ravitch’s distortions are calculated and strategic. If states like New York raise expectations through Common Core standards and make their assessments more rigorous like the NAEP exam, then the public will find out that students aren’t being prepared to succeed in college or a competitive career. And that would amplify the drumbeat for reform and discredit Ravitch’s criticisms of education reform. Ravitch and other defenders of the status quo would be much happier if folks believed most students were doing just fine because then there is no  crisis in education. If the bar for achievement is lowered, millions of students aren’t being shortchanged when it comes to their educational opportunities, and then there’s no need for radical changes to our public education system such as offering parents more high-quality options or holding schools and adults accountable for student learning. Instead, Ravitch argues most kids are right where they need to be. But the reality is far different. We need to raise standards and expectations for what our children should learn in school. Attempts to lower the bar do a disservice to the families and students across the country who desperately need and deserve stronger schools, and to the educators working hard to improve them.  
Eric Lerum is the vice president of growth and strategy for America Succeeds, where he leads the organization’s efforts to amplify the business leader voice in support of improving public education. Eric has over a decade of experience in strategic planning, partnership development, and advising state and local policymakers regarding public education issues. Most recently Lerum led the policy ...

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