These days, the words “Massachusetts standards” cause hearts to flutter among some in Ohio. And not without reason. The Bay State had solid pre-Common Core academic-content standards. But less known is how demanding Massachusetts set its performance standards—the cut-score for achieving “proficiency” on its state tests. This bold action bucked the No Child Left Behind trend, whereby many states, including Ohio, set dismal performance standards. (Under NCLB, states were allowed to set their own bar for “proficiency.”) In this new study, we see just how high Massachusetts set its performance standard relative to other states. To rate the “stringency” of state performance standards, Gary Phillips of AIR created a common scale by linking state NAEP results from 2011 to international tests. Looking at fourth-grade math and reading, Massachusetts had the most stringent performance standards in the land. And in eighth grade, Massachusetts tied with a few other states for the most-stringent standards. Meanwhile Ohio’s performance standards were woefully mediocre compared to other states. Importantly, the study also points out that higher performance standards also led to lower state-reported proficiency rates. Massachusetts, for example, reported roughly 40–55 percent proficient in these grades and subjects; in contrast, Ohio reported 70–85 percent proficient. But this doesn’t mean, of course, that Ohio students actually know more than Massachusetts students: The NAEP results—a standardized test given to a sample of students in all states—actually show the reverse. Higher “standards” are not just content standards—i.e., the expectations for what students should know at each grade level. It also matters how high policymakers set the bar for passing a test. When policymakers set high performance standards with solid content standards, students are more likely to achieve. That’s one lesson Buckeye State policymakers can draw from the Bay State experience.
SOURCE: Gary W. Phillips, International Benchmarking: State and National Education Performance Standards, American Institutes for Research (September 2014).