States Revise the Meaning Of 'Proficient'
by David J. Hoff, Education Week, October 9, 2002
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A number of states appear to be easing their standards for
what it means to be "proficient" in reading and math because
of pressures to comply with a new federal law requiring states
to make sure all students are proficient on state tests in
those subjects within 12 years.
In Louisiana, for instance, students will be considered
proficient for purposes of the federal law when they score at
the "basic" achievement level on their state's assessment.
Connecticut schoolchildren will be deemed proficient even if
they fall shy of the state's performance goals in reading and
mathematics. And Colorado students who score in the "partially
proficient" level on their state test will be judged
Such semantic changes will be common, testing experts predict,
as states that set ambitious goals for student performance are
now required under the federal law to identify schools as
failing if students don't meet those expectations.
But while Colorado, Connecticut, and Louisiana may appear to
be lowering the bar for student performance, their defenders
say the states are simply being realistic about setting goals
they can meet under the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001,
which requires that all students be proficient in reading and
math by the end of the 2013-14 school year.
"I don't think they're gaming the system," said Wayne Martin,
the director of the state education assessment center for the
Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers. "If
you've got a low standard to begin with, to be lowering it
now—that's a different ballgame. I don't know if anybody's
playing that game right now."
Some observers, though, say the changes in those three states
show that it is likely other states will also take advantage
of the latitude the law has given them to define for
themselves what constitutes proficiency. Congress didn't
define the term and didn't give the U.S. Department of
Education any enforcement powers over states that might be
perceived as watering down their standards to meet the new
"They're going to be all over the map—they're going to put
their proficiency standard where they feel they can do it and
get away with it," said Phyllis P. McClure, a Washington-based
independent education consultant who is tracking the effects
of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Walking a Tightrope
The federal law emphasizes improving the achievement of the
lowest-performing students so that all students will become
proficient in reading and math. To begin to track that goal,
states are required to be testing students in reading and math
by the end of the 2005-06 school year.
In the meantime, states must decide how to define proficiency
as they prepare the applications that explain how they will
comply with the law, signed by President Bush last January,
which reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The debates—along with state budget constraints—have put state
testing and accountability systems in flux. ("Budget Woes
Force States to Scale Back Testing Programs," this issue.)
The difficulty for states will be adjusting their
accountability systems to meet the demands of the new federal
law. Many states set demanding standards and designed
accountability systems that measured schools' success in
improving the performance of students across the spectrum.
Currently, many states are still mulling how they will define
"proficient"—an adjective that means "highly competent;
skilled; adept," according to Webster's New World College
Dictionary. Even before the advent of the new federal mandate,
states showed wide variation in the rigor of their achievement
levels. ("A 'Proficient' Score Depends on Geography," Feb. 20,
All states must submit their definitions in applications to
the federal Education Department in January. How states decide
to define proficiency carries enormous consequences.
Any state with an ambitious definition will have to label "the
vast majority" of their schools as needing improvement, said
Robert L. Linn, a professor of education at the University of
Colorado at Boulder and a co-director of the Center for
Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, a
federally financed project.
Such states run the risk of failing to reach the law's goal of
having all their students at the proficient level in reading
and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year.
But changing their definitions of proficient also has
downsides, state officials say.
In California, where about a third of students scored at or
above proficient on state reading tests, lowering the
definition would disrupt the state accountability system,
which rewards schools for moving students up from one
achievement level to the next. If proficiency is set too low
and becomes the only goal for schools to reach, they may not
try to push average students to higher levels, said Paul
Warren, the deputy superintendent for accountability in the
state department of education.
"We don't want to give up what we have," Mr. Warren said. "We
have a lot of public acceptance, and schools perceive it as
Missouri is in a similar situation, according to James Morris,
a spokesman for its education department.
"We've got a tightrope to walk to satisfy the federal mandate
without appearing to water down our expectations," Mr. Morris
The Missouri state board of education is reluctant to change
the definition because of "the degree of confusion that it
would cause for parents and political leaders, not to mention
teachers and school officials," he said.
But he pointed out that the state risks categorizing "a very
large number of schools as failing" if it keeps its current
'Basic' Equals Proficient
When Louisiana established its accountability system in 1999,
it set as a goal that all students would reach the "basic"
achievement level by 2009, and that all students would score
at the proficient mark 10 years after that. The state
purposely set its achievement levels to match the high
standards of the federally sponsored National Assessment of
Educational Progress, or NAEP, said Rodney R. Watson, the
state's assistant superintendent for student and school
The state decided to make the basic level its goal under the
No Child Left Behind Act, he said, because it was aligned with
the state's target for 2009 and still represents solid
On last spring's state tests, 17 percent of Louisiana 8th
graders scored at either the proficient or "advanced" level on
an English/language arts test, while 31 percent rated in the
basic category. In mathematics, 1 percent of 8th graders were
advanced, 4 percent were proficient, and 37 percent were
basic. By comparison, the state's 7th and 9th graders rated
just below the national average on the composite score of the
Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.
While the state decided that its basic achievement level would
be good enough for proficiency under the federal law, it
decided against changing the name of the achievement level.
"It would have looked like we were dumbing down the
standards," Mr. Watson said.
Instead, the state board of education changed the name of the
state's proficient category to "mastery."
Colorado also decided that its state definition of proficient
went beyond what is required under the federal law, so it will
use its "partially proficient" achievement level to determine
its goal for proficiency under the federal law.
Colorado's expectation for partially proficient is "well above
the national standard," insisted William J. Moloney, the state
commissioner of education. "It's a reasonable, demanding
standard, but not an impossible one."
But, unlike Louisiana, Colorado decided against changing the
terminology of the achievement levels. "We didn't for the very
simple reason that we would have been throwing away five years
of work," Mr. Moloney said.
In Connecticut, however, the state will create a new category
of student performance, said Thomas W. Murphy, a state
education department spokesman.
The state's highest achievement level is now called the "goal"
for all students. The category is "not advanced, not
proficient, but somewhere in between," Mr. Murphy said.
Connecticut is one of the top-performing states on NAEP, but
26 percent of its students fail to reach the state goal in
reading, writing, or math—the subjects tested on the
Connecticut Mastery Test.
While some states are redefining achievement levels, New York
officials say they will recommend to the state board of
regents that it set a high mark for proficiency under the
The state has four levels of performance identified by
numbers—1 is the lowest; 4 is the highest. In math, for
example, 48 percent of 8th graders scored at level 3 or 4 this
year, and 7 percent were at the lowest level.
A proposal to define level 3 as proficient is the subject of
debate in public hearings and is scheduled to be considered by
the state board by December.
If the state were to define level 2 as proficient, it would
have few schools labeled as failing in the short term,
according to James A. Kadamus, the deputy commissioner for
elementary, middle, secondary, and continuing education.
But if New York used that benchmark in the long term, he said,
the state would struggle to demonstrate student progress
because it would be trying to raise the performance of
students with severe disabilities and developmental delays.
"You're down to your hardest core, at-risk population," Mr.
Identifying level 3 as proficient, however, "gives districts
incentive to work on both ends of the spectrum," he said.
As states make their final decisions about how to define
proficiency, testing experts predict a wide variation in the
quality of student work expected in the states.
Inevitably, the final arbiter of states' definitions, they
say, will be NAEP. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, all
states taking money under the federal Title I program for
disadvantaged students will be required to take part in the
national assessment's reading and math exams starting in 2003.
While the results won't play an official role in evaluating
states' definitions of proficiency, researchers and watchdogs
will be comparing state rankings on their own tests with those
of NAEP to see which states have set high goals and which ones
"It will be almost impossible to get a national picture from
the state assessments," Mr. Linn of the University of Colorado
said. "This is where NAEP will come in. That's what people
will have to rely on."