Md. test standards called among lowest in U.S.

4th-graders could fail NAEP, pass in state, report says

By Liz Bowie | liz.bowie@baltsun.com

October 30, 2009

Maryland's testing standards for fourth-grade reading and math are some of the lowest in the country, according to a report released Thursday that ranks the relative difficulty of passing state exams that are required under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

In math, the state standards were the sixth lowest in the nation, ranking between Illinois and Alabama.

"I think it is deeply concerning that Maryland's academic standards are some of the lowest in the nation because it is a disservice to students who have to compete internationally," said Matthew Joseph, head of Advocates for Children and Youth.

The report from the National Center for Education Statistics was intended to expose the broad differences among tests developed independently by each state. Critics have said many states are making the tests easy so that most of their students will be able to pass them under federal law.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress test, given to a sampling of fourth- and eighth-graders, was used as a common yardstick.

The report shows that Maryland students could score in the "below basic," or failing, range on NAEP and still receive a passing score on the Maryland School Assessments, indicating that Maryland's tests have simpler material or are easier to pass.

While Maryland's fourth-grade standards were low, the state's eighth-graders have to pass a harder test. The state achievement standard for eighth grade ranked 21st in reading and 16th in math in the nation.

The center, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, found that all but two states have standards that are considered less than "proficient" on the national test. South Carolina's eighth-grade math and reading were rated proficient as was Massachusetts' eighth-grade reading.

Maryland's head of testing, Leslie Wilson, was not concerned by the results of the study. She pointed out that the state's fourth-grade scores on NAEP have been rising over time, particularly on the most recent math test.

"We are moving our kids ahead not just on MSAs but on the things that NAEP measures, too," she said.

She said the state may be emphasizing different material than the national test covers, which would be one reason the state's standards do not stack up favorably.

But Peggy Carr, associate commissioner for assessments at the U.S. Department of Education, said the analysis was never meant to compare state standards to NAEP. "What this study does is to allow policymakers to evaluate the relative location of a state standard on a [common] scale," she said.

The report looked at how three contiguous states, which had relatively equivalent passing rates on their state tests, compare. What the analysis showed was that if a student who was considered to have met a passing standard in Georgia or North Carolina moved across the state line to South Carolina, she might be considered a failing student.

The same might be true of a student passing state tests in Maryland who moves to Massachusetts or South Carolina, where standards are higher.

"Whether that is right or wrong is not the judgment we are making. It is just so different," said Carr.

The report did not try to assess how difficult each state's standards should be, Carr said, but it points out the vast differences between state tests and what is considered to be proficient. She said it is up to policymakers in each state to determine where the line is drawn.

Policymakers may soon be confronting that issue as they struggle with developing common national standards in the coming months. A majority of states have signed on to develop a common curriculum and test, which are under development and would be voluntary. Maryland education officials appear prepared to sign on.

Wilson said Maryland is looking ahead to the common core standards and little attention will be paid to changing the MSAs. A common national test could become a reality in two to three years.

The report also tracked changes in state tests between 2005 and 2007 and found that about half of the states changed their tests during the period and most of those tests were made easier. Maryland was not one of the states that changed its test.

States have an incentive to have low standards because under No Child Left Behind, all children are expected to be able to pass their state's test by 2014 or the state will be identified as not meeting federal requirements.

Maryland's former test, the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, was considered much more rigorous than the current test, but it was not designed under the assumption that all students would have to pass it.

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