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Gaps appear in state, federal test scores

By Ben Feller

WASHINGTON --In Mississippi, 89 percent of fourth-graders who took a state reading test were rated proficient or better. But when the same students took a federal test, only 18 percent reached that standard.

Such discrepancies are not uncommon. Students from all over the country performed worse on a tough federal test than they did on state exams in reading and math -- raising questions about whether states are setting lower standards.

The nation's students do glaringly worse on a tough federal test than they do on state exams in reading and math, raising doubts about how much kids are learning.

The number of children who were proficient or better on state exams was often solid, if not lofty, in 2005. States have wide latitude in deciding what proficiency means.

But on the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- the gold standard of achievement in the U.S. -- most states don't come close to matching up, a new analysis shows.

The performance gap was often enormous. The number of fourth-graders and eighth-graders who scored proficient or better on state tests was often 30, 40 or 50 percentage points higher than the number of those who did well on the federal exam -- the one the president and Congress use to chart the nation's progress.

Congress has required every state to take part in the federal testing as a way to expose states that may be inflating achievement scores.

The Education Trust, a nonprofit think tank that tracks state compliance with President Bush's No Child Left Behind law, released the comparison of test scores in a report Thursday.

"There ought to be questions about whether state standards are preparing students for the challenges of college, work and the real world," said Daria Hall, senior policy analyst at The Education Trust.

Under No Child Left Behind, all children must be proficient in reading and math by 2014. But there has never been a promise of consistency.

States define what "proficient" means, and their expectations for students, tests and passing scores vary widely. States have a huge stake in the scores on their own exams, because they determine whether schools make enough progress to avoid federal penalties.

The federal test is supposed to be a benchmark. But some state officials say the federal standard of proficiency -- competency over challenging subject matter -- is too high.

Other states besides Mississippi had huge test-score gaps:

--In Colorado, 89 percent of fourth-graders were proficient or better in math on the state test. On the federal test, 39 percent were.

--In North Carolina, 88 percent of eighth-graders were proficient or better in reading on the state test. On the federal test, 27 percent were.

--In West Virginia, 71 percent of the eighth-graders were proficient or better in math. On the federal test, 18 percent were.

In a few cases, students performed higher on the federal test than the state test.

"It makes you question whether the definition of 'proficiency' anyplace is anchored in real-world demands," said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping states raise academic standards.

The new data will provide even more urgency, Cohen said, to states that are working to bring their standards up to what colleges and employers want.

One factor is unlikely to change. The state tests have consequences for schools. The federal test does not. So even big shortfalls on the federal test may not force much action.

"We specifically pushed for all 50 states to participate in (the national test) to shed some light on state assessments," said Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey. "We hope states take a good, hard look at this data and use it to help the millions of kids who aren't yet at grade level."

In charting performance on state and federal tests, The Education Trust compared students within the same grade, or at least within a one-grade difference.

Overall, the analysis of state exams found states made progress in elementary school in raising achievement and reducing test-score gaps between white students and minorities. But the progress was much more mixed in middle school and high school.

From the Boston Globe, Friday, March 3, 2006.

Note: See also The Wall Street Journal, Monday, February 27, 2006, p. A 14