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Federal education report aims to compare state standards; meanwhile, the tests keep changing

Shannan Muskopf | flickr
From state to state, the test used to measure students' academic proficiency varies, making it difficult to compare standards acorss state borders.

States are raising the bar of academic standards for measuring students’ learning, according to a report from federal education researchers — but that bar often varies from state to state.

To complicate things more, states, including Missouri, have changed which tests they use several times in recent years.

The National Center for Education Statistics — the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education — released a report Thursday that compares each state’s academic proficiency. The level at which states are considered proficient has gone up, and the gap between high and low bars is narrowing, researchers said.

NCES reached that conclusion by measuring the test it gives to fourth- and eighth-graders across the country against tests in each state and the scores those tests require for students to be considered proficient in math and reading.

Missouri and Illinois fourth- and eighth-graders’ scores have remained steady, with students scoring about the same year-over-year, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Researchers looked at NAEP and state-level test scores and standards in 2015. It found exams given that year were more rigorous in recent years — a positive sign. They also found some variation in standards required by those tests. Researchers took state-level proficiency scores and gave them an equivalency score to NAEP's measure of proficiency.

Illinois is among a dozen states found to be giving students a test that’s tough for students. Those states use a test called PARCC.

“Overwhelmingly, the PARCC standards are higher,” said Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

Illinois State Board of Education Director of Assessment and Accountability Rae Clementz said the report is an “interesting reflection on the different state assessments.”

“We value all of our assessments and all of the information that we get on school quality and student success because they all give us a piece of the picture,” Clementz said.

Illinois educators plan to make slight changes to the PARCC exam it gives to students next year.

In 2015, Missouri used a test known as Smarter Balanced, which researchers deemed less rigorous than PARCC. Since then, however, Missouri has changed the test it gives students several times, making it difficult to compare the test Missouri students take to one taken nationally or in another state, said Nancy Bowles, the spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“And they’re used for different purposes,” she added. “Even their definition of proficiency is different from ours.”

The PARCC test, which Illinois uses, was given a NAEP equivalency score of 235 in reading and 257 in math; the exam Missouri used in 2015, Smarter Balanced, was given 227 and 245.

Kansas also uses its own test. Researchers said it’s one of the most rigorous in the country.

“But of course we have to keep in mind that setting standards high doesn’t necessarily mean performance is high,” said Carr.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.