Basic instincts

U.S. students lag behind their peers in other modern nations-and the gap widens dramatically as their grade levels rise. Our high school pupils (and graduates) are miles from where they need to be to assure them and our country a secure future in the highly competitive global economy. Hence, any serious effort at education reform hinges on our setting world-class standards, then candidly tracking performance in relation to those standards. Even when gains are slender and results disappointing, we need the plain truth. Which is why recent attempts by federal and state governments to sugarcoat the performance of students is so alarming.

Our most rigorous standards are those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federally funded testing program that began in 1969. At a time when many states, responding to the accountability prods of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, are embracing low performance norms for their students-and pumping out misleading information about how many youngsters are "proficient" and how many schools are making "adequate yearly progress"-NAEP functions as an indispensable external benchmark. It unblinkingly reported that only 29 percent of eighth grade public school pupils were "proficient" in math and reading in 2005. It also showed starkly that the results reported by many states are far too rosy. Observe here the contrasts between what states claimed and what NAEP found.

Not surprisingly, NAEP's role as honest auditor makes state officials squirm. Since NCLB expects each state to set its own academic norms and choose its own tests, the temptation to dumb them down is irresistible; NAEP is the main antidote. Congress knew that in 2001 when, as part of No Child Left Behind, it required all states to take part in NAEP reading and math tests in grades four and eight. (Previously, state participation was voluntary.) Since 1988, NAEP's standards and policies have been set by the independent, bipartisan National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB). In 1990, that body promulgated three achievement levels for reporting NAEP results. These it labeled "basic," "proficient" and "advanced."

"Basic" denoted "partial mastery of knowledge and skills." "Advanced" signified "superior performance beyond grade-level mastery." "Proficient," though, was the key. NAGB termed it "the central level," representing "solid academic performance for each grade tested" and "a consensus that students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter and are well prepared for the next level of schooling." NAGB intended that "proficient" would represent the skills that every student ought to possess-even if many were not there yet. On NAEP tests since 1990, this level of performance has usually been reached by about three kids in 10. Everyone knows that's unsatisfactory. But it's also reality, an accurate gauge of the gap between U.S. pupils' prowess and what they need to match world standards.

From the outset, some educators protested that NAGB's "proficient" was too ambitious, but the board stuck to its guns. For the past 15 years, both NAGB and the Department of Education, which manages NAEP, have resisted pressure from politicians and educators to back away from, or dumb down, the "proficient" standard. With NCLB, however, that's begun to change. More voices are demanding that NAEP focus attention on the much-lower "basic" standard. Explains a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Education: "NAEP's basic is comparable to our proficient." Federal officials should push back, insisting on NAGB's "proficient" as the gold standard. They should continue to highlight-and deplore-any gaps between it and state test results. But the White House and Education Department now crave proof that NCLB is succeeding and seek to accommodate state pleas for "flexibility" and pacify governors threatening to withdraw from NCLB.

Hence they, too, are subtly substituting "basic" for "proficient" when they report NAEP results-and downplaying standards altogether in favor of simple up-and-down trend lines. In releasing the 2005 scores, the Education Department for the first time published comparison tables showing state-specific progress only in relation to "basic." And even NAGB members now highlight "basic" rather than "proficient." In October, chairman Darvin M. Winick, a long-time Texas associate of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and President Bush, spoke only of gains at the basic level. His "reporting and dissemination" committee acknowledged that "We're trying to draw attention to basic as an achievement level with some value."

Last month, when releasing 2005 NAEP results for 11 big cities, Mr. Winick's statement focused entirely on trend lines, not standards. (He and his colleagues also suggested that students should be compared with others of the same race rather than in relation to standards.) Staffers guiding journalists and other statistical amateurs through these complex data cited "studies" asserting that NAEP's "basic" is closer to states' "proficient" norms-which is certainly true but should be interpreted as proof that NAEP must maintain its high standards, not succumb to states' lesser aspirations.

Is No Child Left Behind corrupting NAEP? It's too soon to be sure. But it's clear that, for those in the Bush administration and on Capitol Hill whose own reputations hinge on the perceived success of NCLB, NAEP results now carry consequences, just as they do for states.

Just how demanding is "proficient" anyway? Here's how NAGB defined it for fourth grade math: "Fourth graders performing at the proficient level should be able to use whole numbers to estimate, compute, and determine whether results are reasonable. They should have a conceptual understanding of fractions and decimals; be able to solve real-world problems in all NAEP content areas; and use four-function calculators, rulers and geometric shapes appropriately." Is this too much to expect? Hardly. America's great education problem is that for years we settled for "basic skills" rather than true proficiency. The Bush administration does a disservice to the nation if it tells educators and state officials that "basic" is acceptable. You can be sure that our competitors aren't doing any such thing.

This article originally appeared on the op-ed pages of the February 27th Wall Street Journal.

More By Author