The Avocado

Dark Sarcasm in the Classroom: Let’s Talk About Testing

Welcome to the Occasional Avocado Education discussion. Since is probably the biggest issue in education today, let’s talk a little about it. 

The governing board of the NAEP Assessments – what is commonly referred to as “the Nations Report Card” – is considering redefining the definitions of its levels.  (Basic, Proficient, Advanced) 

Diane Ravitch, an education historian who worked for the Dept of Educaion in the Bush Administration, is the author of  The Life and Death of the Great American School System. Here is her letter to the governing board about rethinking the way these tests are assessed:


 Iam writing to express my strong support for a complete rethinking of the NAEP “achievement levels.” I urge the National Assessment Governing Board to abandon the achievement levels, because they are technically unsound and utterly confusing to the public and the media. They serve no purpose other than to mislead the public about the condition of American education.

The achievement levels were adopted in 1992 for political reasons: to make the schools look bad, to convey simplistically to the media and the public that “our schools are failing.”

The public has never understood the levels. The media and prominent public figures regularly report that any proportion of students who score below “NAEP proficient” is failing, which is absurd. The two Common Core-aligned tests (PARCC and SBAC) adopted “NAEP Proficient” as their passing marks, and the majority of students in every state that use these tests have allegedly “failed,” because the passing mark is out of reach, as it will always be.

The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) has stated clearly that “Proficient is not synonymous with grade level performance.” Nonetheless, public figures like Michelle Rhee (who was chancellor of the DC public schools) and Campbell Brown (founder of the website “The 74”) have publicly claimed that the proficiency standard of NAEP is the bar that ALL students should attain. They have publicly stated that American public education is a failure because there are many students who have not reached NAEP proficient.

In reality, there is only one state in the nation–Massachusetts–where as much as 50% of students have attained NAEP Proficient. No state has reached 100% proficient, and no state ever will.

When I served on NAGB for seven years, the board understood very well that proficient was a high bar, not a pass-fail mark. No member of the board or the staff expected that some day all students would attain “NAEP Proficient.” Yet critics and newspaper consistently use NAEP proficient as an indicator that “all students” should one day reach. This misperception has been magnified by the No Child Left Behind Act, which declared in law that all students should be “proficient” by the year 2014.

Schools have been closed, and teachers and principals have been fired and lost their careers and their reputations because their students were not on track to reach an impossible goal.

As you well know, panels of technical experts over the years have warned that the achievement levels were not technically sound, and that in fact, they are “fatally flawed.” They continue to be “fatally flawed.” They cannot be fixed because they are in fact arbitrary and capricious. The standards and the process for setting them have been criticized by the General Accounting Office, the National Academy of Sciences, and expert psychometricians.

Whether using the Angoff Method or the Bookmarking Method or any other method, there is no way to set achievement levels that are sound, valid, reliable, and reasonable. If the public knew that the standards are set by laypersons using their “best judgment,” they would understand that the standards are arbitrary. It is time to admit that the standard-setting method lacks any scientific validity.

When they were instituted in 1992, their alleged purpose was to make NAEP results comprehensible to the general public. They have had the opposite effect. They have utterly confused the public and presented a false picture of the condition and progress of American education.

As you know, when Congress approved the achievement levels in 1992, they were considered experimental. They have never been approved by Congress, because of the many critiques of their validity by respected authorities.

My strong recommendation is that the board acknowledge the fatally flawed nature of achievement levels. They should be abolished as a failed experiment.

NAGB should use scale scores as the only valid means of conveying accurate information about the results of NAEP assessments.

Thank you for your consideration,

Diane Ravitch
NAGB, 1997-2004
New York University


These test and it’s levels have affected nearly every aspect of education: how teachers and schools are evaluated and funded, school curriculum, you name it. The Common Core Standards were backward designed from a “proficient” level on the NAEP, which has pushed down a lot of developmentally inappropriate instruction for younger students. 

What do you all think?