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AP State News

March 02. 2006 7:43PM

Gaps in state, federal test scores cast doubt on student progress

AP Education Writer

The nation's students, including those in North Carolina, do glaringly worse on a tough federal test than they do on state exams in reading and math, raising doubts about how much kids are learning.

The number of children who were proficient or better on state exams was often solid, if not lofty, in 2005. States have wide latitude in deciding what proficiency means.

But on the National Assessment of Educational Progress - the gold-standard measure of achievement in the U.S. - most states don't come close to matching up, a new analysis shows.

The performance gap was often enormous. In North Carolina, 88 percent of eighth-graders were proficient or better in reading on the state test. On the federal test, which the president and Congress use to chart the nation's progress, 27 percent were.

The size of that discrepancy and those in other states raises questions about whether states are setting lower standards. Congress, in fact, has required every state to take part in the federal testing for that very reason - as a way to expose states that otherwise report rosy achievement.

The Education Trust, a nonprofit think tank that tracks state compliance with the No Child Left Behind law, released the comparison of test scores in a report on Thursday.

"There ought to be questions about whether state standards are preparing students for the challenges of college, work and the real world," said Daria Hall, senior policy analyst at Education Trust.

Under President Bush's No Child Left Behind law, all children must be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Overlooked is that there has never been a promise of consistency.

States define what proficient means, and their expectations for students, their tests and their passing scores vary widely. States have a huge stake in the scores on their own exams, because they determine whether schools make enough progress to avoid federal penalties.

The federal test is supposed to be a benchmark. But some state officials say the federal standard of proficient - competency over challenging subject matter - is too high.

Still, some of the test-score gaps within states were huge:

- In Mississippi, 89 percent of fourth-graders were proficient or better in reading on the state test. On the federal test, only 18 percent were.

- In Colorado, 89 percent of fourth-graders were proficient or better in math on the state test. On the federal test, 39 percent were.

- In West Virginia, 71 percent of the eighth-graders were proficient or better in math. On the federal test, 18 percent were.

In a few cases, students performed higher on the federal test than the state test.

"It makes you question whether the definition of 'proficiency' any place is anchored in real-world demands," said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping states raise academic standards.

The new data will give even more urgency, Cohen said, to states that are working together to make their standards more connected with what colleges and employers want.

One factor is unlikely to change. The state tests have consequences for schools. The federal test does not. So even big shortfalls on the federal test may not force much action.

"We specifically pushed for all 50 states to participate in (the national test) to shed some light on state assessments," said Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey. "We hope states take a good, hard look at this data and use it to help the millions of kids who aren't yet at grade level."

In charting performance on state and federal tests, The Education Trust compared students within the same grade, or at least within a one-grade difference.

Overall, the analysis of state exams found states made progress in elementary school in raising achievement and reducing test-score gaps between white students and minorities. But the progress was much more mixed in middle school and high school.

_______________________ "Morality cannot be legislated but behaviour can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart but they can restrain the heartless." Martin Luther King.
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