By John Hood
Have you ever seen a bad grade on your child’s report card and then gotten angry at the school for sending you the report card? Of course not. Like it or not, you need to know how your child is really doing so you can do something about it.
North Carolinians are about to have a similar experience. Back in the 1990s, state officials created new exams for North Carolina public schools. While an improvement over previous competency tests, the new program did not exactly set a high bar. Sometimes, in fact, state officials set the “cut score” — the percentage of correct answers required to pass the test — so low that most students could achieve the state’s “proficient” rating simply by excluding the most-obvious wrong answer of the four choices and then randomly guessing among the remaining three.
Fortunately, at the same time that North Carolina’s annual testing program was exaggerating our student’s true performance, the state was also participating in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Although limited to 4th and 8th graders and not administered every year, the NAEP tests were independent, rigorous, and revealing.
One revelation from the NAEP was that North Carolina made real progress in both reading and math during the 1990s. The progress then continued during the 2000s in math, where North Carolina 8th graders now slightly outperform the national average, while trailing off in reading, where we are about average. In science, our students score slightly below average.
Something else NAEP does is to give “proficiency” a meaningful definition. It doesn’t signify a bare minimum, which NAEP calls “basic.” Nor does it mean “advanced.” Proficient students are situated between basic and advanced. That is, they are fully prepared to advance to the next grade — or in the case of 8th graders, to high school.
According to the latest NAEP exams, 37 percent of North Carolina 8th graders are at least proficient in math, 31 percent are at least proficient in reading, and 30 percent are at least proficient in science. Does these proficiency statistics sound low? They should. Another way to report the NAEP findings is that a quarter of our 8th graders lack even basic math skills, a similar share lack basic reading skills (the two groups overlap but are not precisely the same), and 31 percent lack basic skills in science. Obviously, most of these below-basic 8th graders are promoted into high school, anyway.
Historically, differences between North Carolina’s proficiency levels on state and NAEP tests have been among the largest in the country. For example, in 2011 the state’s end-of-grade testing program rated 79 percent of North Carolina’s 8th graders as proficient in math. On the 2011 NAEP, as I noted above, the proficiency share was 37 percent.
As part of adopting the new Common Core standards, North Carolina redesigned its state tests in reading and math to be more rigorous. (Whether Common Core represents a sufficient improvement at an economical price is a separate and very debatable issue.) Public schools administered the new exams to all students for the first time last spring. Now that the results have come in, however, some state officials are terrified of the potential public response.
In math, for example, the preliminary scoring of North Carolina’s new tests showed only 36 percent of the state’s 8th graders were proficient. Obviously that is dramatically different than what our state tests have told parents and taxpayers in the past. But it is strikingly similar to the most-recent NAEP result for 8th grade math.
The Department of Public Instruction and State Board of Education have delayed making these results final while considering what to do. Some officials reportedly want to reconsider the proficiency standards. Others want to proceed with the tests as currently scored.
Assuming there are no methodological flaws, I’m with the latter camp. North Carolinians may initially be surprised and troubled when they get more-accurate information about student performance, but they’ll appreciate the truth in the long run.
—John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward, available at JohnLockeStore.com.