Basic: The US Standard


The Reading: “Data: Student Achievement in the Era of Accountability” published by Education Week on December 30, 2015

Nearly 15 years after the inception of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, America’s 21st century reauthorization of President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, we have nationwide data collected by the National Assessment of Educational Progress from which we can assess the progress made towards achieving the goals of NCLB.

M.L. Yell (2006) succinctly identified five primary goals of NCLB in his book, The Law and Special Education:

  • All students will achieve high academic standards by attaining proficiency or better in reading and mathematics by the 2013–2014 school year.
  • Highly qualified teachers will teach all students.
  • All students will be educated in schools and classrooms that are safe, drug free, and conducive to learning.
  • All limited English proficient students will become proficient in English.
  • All students will graduate from high school (p. 181).

Lofty, weren’t they? 100% in every way for every goal…by 2014. Makes sense that so many educators were vocal about them, no? Imagine that. Demanding perfection within thirteen years regardless of environmental, psychological, intellectual, and other factors. Of course, we know that setting standards of perfection as human beings does nothing short of guaranteeing a failure to meet them, but we can discuss the practicality another time. For now, let’s focus on that first expectation.

All students will achieve high academic standards by attaining proficiency or better in reading and mathematics by the 2013-2014 school year.

I can identify one big issue besides the “all” and the timeframe. What constitutes as proficiency? Because education is a state’s rights issue, NCLB left it up to each state to determine what it considered proficient, which seemed perfectly fine because the states knew the students they served, so why not leave it up to them, right? Right, so we’ve got each state setting its own standard of proficiency by which the federal government will assess its success.

Did anyone ever consider the possibility that the states’  standards would be set too low? I mean, considering that the catalyst for NCLB was a lack of accountability in the first place… Hmm. Thirteen years of making your own curriculum standards, proficiency levels, and assessments should produce drastic shifts in closing the achievement gap and elevating student achievement overall. That’s what we all hoped anyway.

Fast forward to 2015 when students from those 50 states were given the same assessment developed by NAEP. Proficiency is the keyword here, so let’s keep that in mind. Here is how the NAEP defines proficient:

Solid academic performance and demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.

Sounds good. On to a quick recap of the 2015 NAEP results… NAEP administers the test to grades 4, 8, and 12 in both reading and mathematics; however, there are no results for grade 12 in 2015. The latest assessment of grade 12 students was from 2013. 🙁 I must note here that there are three designations for results: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced.

In reviewing the scores highlighted in the featured reading from Education Week, we can see that the combined proficiency rate in 2015 for grades 4 and 8 in math and reading inched up to 34.8%, which is a 5.2 point increase over a twelve-year period. The article describes it as “a modest degree of improvement,” which is sweet and unoffensive. The achievement gap between students who qualify for free or reduced lunch widened by 3.8 points, which is not what was supposed to happen. Despite students from lower SES backgrounds making some gains in achievement, they still significantly lagged behind their peers from more affluent environments.


NAEP Combined Proficiency Rate 2015
Courtesy of Education Week
NAEP Poverty Gap Widens
Courtesy of Education Week

When I looked at the results separately, I found myself a bit discontented with the reality. Take a look and see if you feel the same:

  • Grade 8 Mathematics | 67% of students scored at or below Basic level
  • Grade 4 Mathematics | 60% of students scored at or below Basic level
  • Grade 8 Reading | 66% of students scored at or below Basic level
  • Grade 4 Reading | 64% of students scored at or below Basic level

Remember the keyword here, folks – proficiency.

After twelve years of testing, our students still haven’t come close to 50% being at or above the Proficient level. This, even after thirteen years of states determining their own standards and achievement levels. Wasn’t the student achievement expectation of NCLB 100% proficiency in reading and mathematics? Yet our students are barely hitting the 25% proficiency mark in grade 8 mathematics.

What does proficiency look like for these grade levels and subjects? I won’t go into that, but you can see for yourself here:

A few gains don’t make up for the fact that our students are nowhere near the original achievement goal. Never mind that the goal was perfection. We’re not even close to halfway towards the expectation, and I would hate for that to be glossed over, especially with President Obama’s reauthorization, Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, which leveled the Secretary of Education’s power to hold states accountable. NCLB regulated far more than people wanted, and look at the results we’ve gotten from our most recent assessment of student learning. Is less really more? I don’t know. I can only hope that states use the new power they’ve received from ESSA to make some serious changes.

The goal should still be striving towards perfection, but we can’t get there if we’re not on the same page as a nation. What good is having 50 different definitions of proficiency if they don’t reflect large achievement gains nationwide? Or, could it be that the varying opinions of proficiency do reflect a commonality – an accepted low standard of student success?

Want to see your state’s 2015 report card? Click here


Yell, M. (2006). The law and special education (p. 181). New York City, NY: Pearson Education Inc.


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