International Benchmarking: State and National Education Performance Standards

Gary Phillips

State performance standards represent how much the state expects the student to learn in order to be considered proficient in reading, mathematics, and science. This AIR report uses international benchmarking as a common metric to examine and compare what students are expected to learn in some states with what students are expected to learn in other states. The study finds that there is considerable variance in state performance standards, exposing a large gap in expectations between the states with the highest standards and the states with the lowest standards.

When the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law was enacted in 2001, it required states to show steady improvement in student performance in reading and mathematics, with the goal of having all students proficient by 2014. Each state was responsible for setting their standards to measure and define the term “proficiency.” The study used international benchmarks to grade states by statistically linking state tests to the state National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), then linking national NAEP to national TIMSS or PIRLS data.

Findings include:

  • Boy doing math at chalkboardStates reporting the highest percent of proficient students had the lowest performance standards. More than two-thirds of the difference in state success is related to how high or low the states set their performance standards.
  • The difference between the states with the highest and lowest standards is about two standard deviations – a statistical term denoting the amount of variation from the average. In many testing programs, a gap this large represents three to four grade levels.
  • The percentage of proficient students for most states declined when compared with international standards. In Grade 8 mathematics, for example, Alabama went from 77 percent proficient to 15 percent; Colorado from 80 percent to 35 percent; Oklahoma from 66 percent to 20 percent; and New Jersey from 71 percent to 50 percent.
  • Using international standards, Massachusetts climbed to 57 percent proficient from 52 percent under its own standards.

View full-size PDF chart showing a comparison of state and TIMSS Grade 8 mathematics proficiency standards for all states: Vast Differences in What is Considered Proficient >>