Washington state's exams for math and reading still set a lower bar for proficiency than the federal government's national test.
But officials and experts say that's not all that bad because the national benchmark is pretty high.
A report released late Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) compared the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress exam against state standardized tests nationwide.
In all categories, Washington's benchmarks fell into the government's "basic" range, similar to many other states. Some states such as Massachusetts, New Mexico, Kansas and Oklahoma defined proficiency at higher levels.
Peggy Carr, NCES associate commissioner for assessment, said the difference between the tests boils down to the national test measuring "what students should know and be able to do" compared to state tests looking for "what they do know at the grade level."
Carr said states "are more concerned about whether the student has the knowledge commensurate with that grade level enough to promote them to the next level — not whether they're scoring way above average."
In Washington, that's not an issue anymore, as the state did away with exit exams. Starting with the graduating class of 2020, passing standardized tests won't stand between high-school seniors and earning a diploma.
In the past, this report and the national test that it's based on played an important role in developing America's education policy. As some states, such as New York, continued to post rising state test scores, the comparison study provided a fact check, showing that scores increased not because students were learning more, but because the tests were getting easier.
Overall, the new report, based on national tests administered in 2017, found that most states' definition of proficiency fall into the national definition of "basic," and that state benchmarks have gotten closer to each other since the study's first release in 2007. In fourth-grade reading, Utah and Massachusetts had standards that aligned with the higher national proficiency goal.
As deputy commissioner of NCES, Jack Buckley helped develop the report — and had to present its results to unhappy officials. "I remember speaking to really hostile rooms," he said. Buckley has since worked as NCES' commissioner and is now the president and chief scientists of Imbellus, an assessment technology startup. He also chairs a panel that studies the technical aspects of the national test.
Policymakers were concerned that the No Child Left Behind Act, a federal law that required standardized testing in reading and math, allowed states to decide how hard the tests would be, so the benchmarks for what it took to pass one of those subjects varied greatly from state to state. "It was something everyone believed but no one had demonstrated: that states had set their cut scores all over the place," Buckley said.
People were worried, he added, that a kid could move across state lines, and with no change in academic performance or knowledge, be suddenly labeled as failing. "There were people who thought their kid was doing quite well in school," Buckley said. "They relocated, and suddenly their kid was way behind."
Two consortia developed tests tied to the new standards. Washington joined the Smarter Balanced group — which, according to the new report, generally set less rigorous benchmarks for reaching proficiency than the other major consortium, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
In Washington, students took their first round of such exams in 2015. The tests were different in that they reflected the newer standards, and that the level of difficulty changed based on a student's progress. They're meant to be taken entirely on computers, and the first round had some early glitches. In some Seattle schools, parents and teachers protested and skipped the tests.
On the 2017-18 test, 56% of Washington's third graders reached state benchmarks on the English language arts exam; 58% of third graders met standards in math.
Representatives from Washington's state education department did not immediately comment.