Bella Rosenberg of The American Federation of Teachers has written a brief and mostly useful analysis (pdf) of what “proficient” means under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Rosenberg notes that at the end of the day what constitutes “proficient” is a judgment call and she highlights the differences among various state definitions, which translate into differences in what constitutes “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) for schools under state accountability systems. Remember though, NCLB only applies to schools, it does not require tests to be used in any decision about individual students.

Yet if one does not like between state variations there are two remedies. One is simply not to have federally mandated output-based accountability and the other is to have some sort of national measure. Rosenberg, though clearly dissatisfied by NCLB’s accountability provisions seems not to be calling for either option leaving state-by-state variation as an unfortunate fact of life in a federal system. Still, she does a good job explaining it and this report will be a great resource for reporters and state-policymakers as they seek to understand and explain this issue. Her call for more transparency is also well-worth heeding.

Less helpfully, she argues that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a low-stakes test given to samples of students in different states and designed to serve as an external “audit” for state standards, shows the folly of NCLB’s accountability system and goals because NAEP’s standards for proficiency are so rigorous. But under NCLB this is not an issue because there are no consequences associated with the NAEP proficiency levels (which are very controversial to begin with). Rosenberg writes that because NAEP’s levels represent a “check” they are the levels 4th, 8th, and 12-graders are expected to achieve by 2014. This is not in the law, which defers to state definitions of proficiency based on tests chosen by each state. And, most policymakers will be more interested in trends in state achievement on the NAEP than in proficiency levels. A larger, and complicated, debate about NAEP and NCLB may occur down the road — in no small part because NCLB opponents persist in using state variability to attack the law — but that debate is not here now so this discussion only confuses the issue.

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