Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

What Do Test Scores Really Mean in NC?

It’s the time of year again for end-of-grade and end-of-course test scores to be released. If history repeats itself, educators will be patting themselves on the back. Remember last year? About 94 percent of schools received bonuses for achievement on North Carolina tests.

Confusion set in when the National Assessment of Educational Progress test revealed only 32 percent of fourth-grade students in North Carolina were proficient, while the state test indicated 81.1 percent were proficient. What about the 49.1 percentage point difference? What could possible be wrong?

Many reasons are given for the vast difference in reporting. First and foremost the education establishment makes sure everyone knows that the NAEP standards, or cut scores, are much higher than reasonable for the average student. That means the standards for North Carolina tests are set at “minimal expectations,” a term I heard stated many times at State Education Board meetings.

Now the establishment boasts about how state tests are aligned with NAEP. The test questions may be aligned, but the levels of achievement are far from alignment. However, I offer a quick solution if the state would like to correct this obvious discrepancy.

Educators should create a Level V and rename Level III as “minimal mastery.” Level III can be kept as passing, if educators fear the political ramifications of high standards. The cut scores for Levels IV and V could become more consistent to NAEP’s proficient and advance levels. If this were done, parents would get a better comparison of their children’s ability.

Currently both tests have four levels of achievement. The North Carolina levels are: Level I, insufficient mastery; Level II, inconsistent mastery; Level III, consistent mastery; Level IV, superior mastery. Levels I and II are considered below grade level, while levels III and IV are considered grade-level or proficient. The NAEP levels are: below basic, basic, proficient, and advance. Proficient and advance are grade level.

Patterns emerge when comparing the percentages at the top two levels, or lower two levels. Using the 2003 percentages for the fourth-grade reading, state test scores revealed 18.9 percent of students were at level I and II, while 81.1 percent were at Level III and IV. NAEP scores revealed 67 percent of students were below basic and basic, while 32 percent were proficient and advanced. Subtract 32 percent (NAEP considers proficient) from the 81.1 percent (NC considers proficient). The remainder is a 49.1 percent discrepancy. The addition of 49.1 percent to 18.9 percent (NC considers not proficient) equals 68 percent, which is only one percentage point difference from the NAEP score of 67 percent not proficient.

I calculated the fourth-grade math, eighth-grade reading, and eighth-grade math scores the same way, and each time the percentages if “not proficient” came out the same or had a one-point difference.

What does this tell a parent? If a child scores at a Level I/II, a parent should look for intense intervention, because the student is probably one or more years behind. If a child scores at Level III, a parent should get some summer tutoring for the student. Remember, achievement levels are minimal standards. If a child scores at a Level IV, a parent should not feel overly confident. Top achievement levels for fourth-grade 2003 reading scores are inconsistent. The state reports 40.4 percent at Level IV, or superior mastery, while the NAEP reports only 32 percent at both the proficient and advanced levels.

The education establishment prints Level III as consistent mastery and Level IV as superior mastery on written documents. However, verbally the same group declares these are minimal standards for proficiency. It is time for the state to be clear with parents and be consistent. If the state educators want to align with the NAEP, then state achievement levels also should be aligned.