Expressing International Educational Achievement in Terms of U.S. Performance Standards: Linking NAEP Achievement Levels to TIMSS

Gary W. Phillips
American Institutes for Research
April 24, 2007

Earlier this week, the American Institutes for Research released an important paper by chief scientist Gary Phillips, who for many years headed the NCES unit that administers NAEP and who knows that assessment system as well as anyone. In essence, he links NAEP's scoring scale to that of the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) so that he can project NAEP's three well-known "achievement levels" (basic, proficient, advanced) onto the TIMSS scale and show how kids in other countries do (in math and science only) in relation to NAEP's expectations. A very nice piece of analysis, for starters, and one that undermines the assertion by state officials and some academics that NAEP's "achievement levels" expect too much. When a non-trivial number of other countries, including some of America's toughest economic competitors, already boast far larger fractions of their students at or above NAEP's "proficient" level than the U.S. itself can claim, we'd be foolish to lower our expectations. The next time you hear a state testing director argue that his state's definition of "proficiency" is more akin to NAEP's concept of "basic," understand that you're listening to someone who is content when young Americans are more like Latvians or Indonesians than like Koreans or Belgians. Which is not to say that any country has all of its kids "at or above proficient." Far from it. If, for NCLB purposes, we use NAEP-level "proficient" as the bar that every young American has to clear, we won't succeed. But the fact that the Netherlands is at 41 percent, Belgium at 51 percent, and Taiwan and Japan at 61 percent (all in 8th grade math) while the U.S. lingers around 27 percent means that ordinary kids in serious countries are doing vastly better than ours are and that we're right to keep using that target as the one to shoot for and measure ourselves against. Find the study here and a news report about it here.

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