States are raising the stakes when it comes to what is expected of students, but academic performances aren't reflecting the increased expectations.
According to a report in the journal Education Next, researchers found no correlation between a rise in state standards and a rise in student achievement – despite this being the main objective of raising the bar of test proficiency.
"We find no correlation at all between a lift in state standards and a rise in student performance, which is the central objective of higher proficiency bars," the study states. "While higher proficiency standards may still serve to boost academic performance, our evidence suggests that day has not yet arrived."
Education Next has tracked student proficiency, defined as "on track for college," on standardized state tests since 2005. The proportion is then compared to the proficiency rate on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam by the Department of Education. The higher the percentage of students found proficient on a state exam compared to the percentage identified as proficient by NAEP, the lower the state's proficiency standard.
If states set their proficiency bar high, the difference between their test and the NAEP will be small. However, states have been setting their bar low, leading people to believe students were prepared for life after high school. In reality, according to the NAEP, they were falling behind. Additionally, the gap between state test scores and NAEP scores was large.
According to the study, in 2009 the gap was 37 percentage points on average. The gap began to narrow, to 10 percent in 2015 and to 9 percent in 2017. However, researchers say this "news is not all good."
"Even though states have raised their standards, they have not found a way to translate these new benchmarks into higher levels of student test performance," the study states.
The NAEP assigns a grade, A through F to each state. According to the study, however, some states set their proficiency bar so high that they score several points below the NAEP score. This earns the state a high grade. Other states have a much higher percentage of students found to be proficient on a state exam than on the NAEP exam, causing the state to receive a poor, or even failing, grade.
In 2017, 16 states and Washington, D.C., received an A for their proficiency standards. Iowa received the lowest grade of D-plus. However, only 12 states received a better grade in 2017 than in 2015, despite a change in standards. When graphed, researchers saw "virtually no relationship between rising proficiency standards and test-score growth over this time period."
The outcome could be the result of a multitude of factors and doesn't necessarily mean state standards are not effective, researchers suggest. They note that stunted test score growth could be due to the financial crisis in 2008 and the declining spending on schools and education or the end of the No Child Left Behind program.
Currently, state proficiency standards are closely aligned with the standards set by the NAEP, which is a big improvement, researchers say, since 2009 when the Common Core initiative began.