Reimagining Education

What is “proficient” anyway?

State BOE considering renaming performance levels after hearing how Missouri’s level of rigor compares to other states

Last week the Missouri Board of Education got an update on how Missouri stacks up to other states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) which is also known as the nation’s report card.

The update was not on how Missouri students perform on the test (we are still about the middle of the pack), but instead on how our accountability system does at providing rigorous levels of measuring what level of performance should be considered as “Basic” or “Proficient.”

Spoiler alert: we are not doing too well.

Missouri lagging behind other states on rigor

Last week, the state BOE heard the same news we reported almost a year ago — the majority of states across the country are making impressive strides to increase the rigor of state assessments and more closely align with NAEP. Missouri, on the other hand, is the only state in the nation to see its proficiency gap widen.

Jeremy Ellis, DESE’s NAEP Coordinator, told the board that in 2009 Missouri was ranked second the nation for the rigor of its 4th-grade reading and math assessments, first in the nation for rigor in its 8th-grade reading assessments and third in the nation for the rigor of its 8th-grade math assessments.

In 2017, Missouri ranked 47th for 4th-grade reading rigor, 38th for 4th-grade math rigor, 48th for 8th-grade reading rigor, and was not even listed for 8th-grade math rigor.

“All of the states have moved up and some of them very significantly,” he told the board. “We are just slightly below where we were.”

Does it matter?

Commissioner Margie Vandeven told the board they needed to consider how important the recent findings were.

“We could be like some states and say we don’t care what the rest of the nation thinks, we are going to do what we think is right for our children and who cares what the rest of the world thinks,” she said. “On the other side of this, when this came out we took some bad press. What I want this board to decide is does it matter or not.”

Board responses were mixed.

New board member Kimberly Bailey said she was concerned about the impact high rigor could have on student’s confidence.

“I am by no means saying we should reduce our standards to make our children feel better, but there is an element of making sure they know they can do it and not keep frustrating them so they know they can do it and not give up,” she said. “There is an element of sometimes they need success so they know they can do the harder rigor.”

“My bottom-line question is it really helping the students become more proficient,” she added. “I want us to have high standards but not that cost of frustrating our youth.”

Board member Donald Claycomb said he was worried about how our students would be able to compete on a national and international level.

“I don’t want us to fool ourselves and make everyone feel warm and fuzzy,” he said, “but then when they go somewhere else they don’t accomplish at the next level.”

Board approves new standards for science tests

Despite the uncertainty on how much comparative rigor matters, the board unanimously approved new proficiency standards for state science tests.

Under the new standards (based on 2018 test scores), only 43 percent of students taking the 5th-grade test would be considered proficient, 44 percent of the students taking the 8th-grade test would be proficient, 38 percent of the students taking the physical science test would be proficient and 40 percent of the students taking the biology test would be proficient.

In 2017 only 45.8 percent of students taking the 5th-grade test were considered proficient, 49 percent of the students taking the 8th-grade test were proficient, 29 percent of the students taking the physical science test were proficient and 65 percent of the students taking the biology test were proficient.

What is in a name?

Board president Charlie Shields doubled down on concerns expressed last month that the board was doing itself a disservice by using the terms “Basic” and “Proficient.”

“Sometimes we just provide the tools for people to beat public education over the head with,” he said, continuing his argument that “Basic” scores were essentially passing.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The definitions vary slightly by grade level and subject matter but according to DESE’s own descriptions, the “Basic” level is literally the definition of borderline, incomplete grade level comprehension. It may not be a completely failing grade, but it is far from passing and students who cannot score above basic clearly need additional instruction.

Several board members agreed with Shields and asked that the board consider renaming the levels at a future board meeting.

“The titles themselves could change,” warned Vandeven, “but we would still be tied to the descriptors.”

Those descriptors clearly label “Basic” (whatever the board decides to call it) as an incomplete understanding of grade-level material — even by Missouri’s standards.

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