What does "proficient" on the DC CAS really mean?

A report released today by the National Center on Education Statistics (NCES) highlights vastly differing definitions of state proficiency standards, using a common benchmark called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). According to the report – which examines the wide range of state standards and how each state matches up to the NAEP – what D.C. considers to be proficient is actually below the standards of many other states. Furthermore, a score of proficient in D.C. translates to “basic” or even below basic, on a national test.

To parse what this means, let’s take a fourth grader who scored “proficient” in math and reading on the 2009 DC Comprehensive Assessment System (DC CAS). She did better than 55% of her peers in reading and 51% of her peers in math. According to the DC CAS, she’s doing pretty well and has mastered the content in fourth grade. But that student would be considered below proficient in math in 34 other states and below proficient in reading in 17 other states.

All of a sudden, her scores aren’t looking so good, and I’m beginning to question her mastery of reading and math. On a national test, the same child would have scored only “basic” in math and slightly below basic in reading, which is nowhere close to proficiency. Now, her DC CAS scores are looking worse, and that comparison contains lessons about what DC CAS scores really say, or don’t say, about student achievement in the District.

According to the most recent DC CAS scores, less than half of D.C. elementary students were proficient in math and reading. The same was true for secondary students, with the exception of math and reading scores of public charters school students.

Judged by NAEP standards, all of those percentages (ranging from 42% to 62%) would sink even lower. Because the bar for proficiency is set lower on the D.C. test, the DC CAS seems to overstate student achievement. That’s a problem for the schools, whose already low proficiency levels take another hit. It’s also a problem for our students, who may be hearing they’re proficient, when in actuality they’re not.

The good news is that D.C. has adopted the Common Core Standards, along with 45 other states. A single set of standards are intended to ensure a common understanding of what students are expected to learn. This is one step forward in ensuring that proficient in D.C. means the same thing in the other states.

D.C. test scores have generally gone up since 2007, but still less than half of students are proficient in most subject areas. Through the continued effort of students, schools and communities those scores can continue to rise, but the NCES comparison serves as a reminder of the importance of making sure our students can compete.

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