NAEP benchmarks: Neither useful nor credible

In recent years, the United States has been faced with bleak headlines about the performance of its students and schools. Many of these headlines rely on national and state results about performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). A particular concern is that typically only about one-third of students in the United States meet a NAEP benchmark of “Proficient” on tests of reading and mathematics.

But earlier this year, a detailed statistical analysis from the National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League (How High the Bar?) concluded that the vast majority of students in most countries perform no better than American students when measured by the NAEP standard. The U.S. has established benchmarks that are neither useful nor credible.

The vast majority of students in most countries perform no better than American students when measured by the NAEP standard.

“So what?” you might say. NAEP’s benchmarks have no consequences for schools or students. But that’s about to change. NAEP’s proficiency benchmark has pretty much been accepted as the bar students will be expected to clear under PARCC, SBAC, and statewide ESSA assessments.

It is time educators spoke up. Despite the findings in How High the Bar? the only response from the U.S. Department of Education is a proposal to add the acronym NAEP in front of the term Proficient (to distinguish the NAEP standard from other uses of the same term). The department has asked educators to comment on this change by September 30.

In truth, NAEP’s proficiency benchmark is indefensible. As the Roundtable made clear in lengthy and detailed comments to the department, from the moment the proficiency standard was announced in the early 1990s, it has been consistently and continuously denounced by statisticians and scientists as “wishful thinking” that produced results that defied “reason and common sense.” For example, the vast majority of students in most countries cannot meet NAEP’s proficiency benchmark. Even in Singapore and Finland, always highly successful on international tests, fewer than 40% of 4th graders meet the American benchmark for proficiency in reading. A full third of the best American math students, those who have completed calculus, are judged to be not Proficient. Half of the students testing as merely Basic complete a four-year degree.

The Roundtable urged the department to adopt clearer statements of what the Basic and Proficient benchmarks mean. (Performance at the Basic level is the best guide to grade-level performance, according to the department’s own records.)

If you agree, a simple email can let the department know. Comments must be received by September 30 to be considered. Here’s all you have to say:

The Department’s proposal to amend the policy definitions for NAEP’s benchmarks must be revised to make them more informative to the American public. Without such changes, most Americans will continue to believe that “Proficient” means performance at grade level.

Sign your name and affiliation to a statement similar to that and email it to: and to

All of us support high standards. Unless the department modifies its position, it will continue to mislead policymakers and the public. Its definition of proficiency will become the de facto guide for state assessment, maligning schools and students without justification. And, importantly, it will call into question the credibility and validity of NAEP among educators who pay attention to these things.

JAMES HARVEY (; @natsupers) is Executive Director of the National Superintendents Roundtable.

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