Among the most common rationales offered for the Common Core State Standards project is to eliminate differences in the definition of student proficiency in core academic subjects across states. As is well known, the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB) required states to test students annually in grades 3-8 (and once in high school), to report the share of students in each school performing at a proficient level in math and reading, and to intervene in schools not on track to achieve universal student proficiency by 2014. Yet it permitted states to define proficiency as they saw fit, producing wide variation in the expectations for student performance from one state to the next. While a few states, including several that had set performance standards prior to NCLB’s enactment, have maintained relatively demanding definitions of proficiency, most have been more lenient.
The differences in expectations for students across states are striking. In 2011, for example, Alabama reported that 77 percent of its 8th grade students were proficient in math, while the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests administered that same year indicated that just 20 percent of Alabama’s 8th graders were proficient against NAEP standards. In Massachusetts, on the other hand, roughly the same share of 8th graders achieved proficiency on the state test (52 percent) as did so on the NAEP (51 percent). In other words, Alabama deemed 25 percent more of its students proficient than did Massachusetts despite the fact that its students performed at markedly lower levels when evaluated against a common standard. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has gone so far as to accuse states like Alabama of “lying to children and parents” by setting low expectations for student performance.