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If NAEP “Proficient” Means “Grade Level Proficiency,” Then America’s Private Schools Are in Trouble

May 27, 2016

Former TV anchor and current privatizing reform conduit Campbell Brown believes that a student’s achieving the level “proficient” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) equates with that student being “at grade level” or (more precisely, according to her) having achieved “grade level proficiency.”

In a May 16, 2016, Slate interview, Brown said the following:

Two out of three eighth graders in this country cannot read or do math at grade level. We are not preparing our kids for what the future holds.

As she introduces an article written by Carol Burris, Washington Post education writer Valerie Strauss sums up the social media upheaval that ensued over Brown’s equating NAEP “proficient” with being “at grade level”:

Another day, another fight in the education world. This one is worth delving into because it is really not about who said what but about fundamental understandings — and misunderstandings — of standardized testing data and how it drives policy.

This one started when education activist Campbell Brown said that two-thirds of U.S. eighth graders are below grade level in reading and math. Tom Loveless, a former Harvard professor and teacher who researches student achievement, then tweeted that he has never seen data showing that, and asked Brown to explain her sourcing. She said that she was referring to proficiency rates on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

NAEP, as the test is known, is sometimes referred to as “the nation’s report card” because it is seen as the most consistent measure of U.S. student achievement since the 1990s. It is administered every two years to groups of U.S. students in the fourth and eighth grades, and less frequently to high school students. When Loveless told her that NAEP proficiency scores do not refer to grade level, a social media fight ensued between Campbell and her critics.

In this post, Carol Burris, a former award-winning high school principal who got involved in the Twitter exchange, explains why the substance of this debate matters.

I asked Brown to comment about her statement that two out of three eighth graders cannot read or do math at grade level and why she thinks NAEP proficiency means grade level. She said in an emailed response, which you can see in full below, that “if I were trying to be completely and utterly precise then I would have specified ‘grade-level proficiency,’ instead of ‘grade level’ in the context of NAEP score,” and that “any reasonable person or parent” would understand what she meant.

The achievement level preceding “proficient” is “basic,” and it is “at or above basic” that the bulk of students’ scores tend to fall.

What Brown erroneously proposes is that NAEP “proficient” equals “grade level proficiency” and that not achieving NAEP “proficient”  equals “not at grade-level proficiency.”

If the above were true, then it is not only America’s public schools that one must worry about.

Brown must also fault America’s private schools– the schools where admission is clearly selective and parents and schools negotiate to choose each other– but also where schools can more freely deselect troublesome students. (Brown should know as much; at 16, she was expelled from a private school for sneaking off of campus.)

If Brown were talking about America’s private schools in her Slate interview, her words might have been as follows:

One out of two private school eighth graders in this country cannot read nor do math at grade level. We are not preparing our kids for what the future holds.

Is she willing to erroneously assert as much based on a faulty interpretation of NAEP grade 8 percentages of private school students scoring “proficient” or above in math and reading?

Let’s see if she is.

The data below can be obtained using this National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) search engine.

The number of private school students taking the 2015 NAEP was too small for calculating private school NAEP proficiency in 2015. However, in 2013, 57 percent of grade 8 private school students scored proficient or higher in reading, up from 54 percent in 2011 and 52 percent in 2009. In fact, since the inception of the NAEP grade 8 reading test in 1992 to the most recent private school data in 2013, the percentage of private school students achieving proficiency or higher has only risen from 48 to 57 percent. (See all of this and more here.)

Following Brown’s logic, such means that roughly “one in two private school eighth graders in this country cannot read at grade level.” But such an indictment would be baloney.

And there’s more potential baloney to come.

In 2013, 47 percent of grade 8 private school students scored proficient or higher in math, down from 48 percent in 2011 and the same as 47 percent in 2009. Since the inception of the NAEP grade 8 math test in 1990 to the most recent private school data in 2013, the percentage of private school students achieving proficiency or higher has risen from 17 to the 2011 peak of 48 percent. Between 2003 and 2013, the percentage of private school students achieving proficiency or higher has only moved from 43 to 48 percent (2011)– and back down to 47 percent (2013). But the margin of error is greater than a point, which means that 47 and 48 percent could be considered “the same.” (This data and more is available here.)

Again, if she wanted to panic America about the state of its private schools, Brown could declare that “one in two private school eighth graders in this country cannot do math at grade level.”

For grade 4 math, the story is similar: In 2013, 48 percent of grade 4 private school students achieved proficient or above, which happens to be the same percentage in 2007. (See that data and more here.)

As for grade 4 reading: In 2013, 49 percent of grade 4 private school students achieved proficient or above. This percentage has not moved much since the inception of the NAEP reading test in 1992 (45 percent). (See that data and more here.)

I guess only one in two private school fourth graders can read nor do math at grade level. Or not.

I’m going to go with the words of Tom Loveless and research of Gary Phillips that Carol Burris included in her Washington Post article on NAEP:

Loveless, who has written extensively about NAEP, said the following in his email correspondence with me:

 “The cut point on NAEP is much too high [to be considered grade level].

In a 2007 study, researcher Gary Phillips projected where scores on the TIMSS, a series of international math and science given to kids around the world, would land on the NAEP scale.  He estimated that 27 percent of Singapore’s 8th graders would fail to meet the NAEP proficient cut score in math.  At the time, Singapore was the highest scoring country in the world.  Japan — not exactly a weak math country–would see only 57 percent meet proficiency; 43 percent would “fail.” You can read more about that study on pp. 10-13 of the 2007 Brookings Report authored by Loveless that you can find here.

NAEP “proficient” does not equate with either “at grade level” or “grade-level proficiency,” even if Brown insists that it does– and even if she is willing to publicly declare war on America’s private schools in an effort to justify her error.

How about it, Campbell? Are America’s private schools producing one in two 4th and 8th graders who cannot read nor do math, uh, with grade-level proficiency??

campbell brown 4  Campbell Brown


Coming June 24, 2016, from TC Press:

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Stay tuned.



Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.

She also has a second book, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

  1. Ignorance is bliss.

  2. I’ve been studying NAEP, MCAS, NECAP, ACT, etc. achievement/college entrance tests for about 10 years.

    NAEP proficient is close to what should be meant by grade level mastery. Here’s why: The ACT figure of merit- the percent college ready- is roughly equal to NAEP proficiency percentage as I have determined from an analysis of student groups who took both exams. The ACT number is determined from a statistical analysis of longitudinal tracking of students who took the ACT in a subject and then also took an entry level college course in that same/similar subject. ACT adjusts its cut score (they call it their benchmark score) every few years to satisfy the criterion that half of the tested students who scored above the cut score will get a B or A in that entry level course.

    • Is a student who gets a C in a college course “college ready”?

      • The SAT college ready benchmark says that a student has a 65% probability of having a freshman year GPA of B-. So, deutsch29, a C students is not college ready.

      • CB Pres David Coleman also admitted that high school grades are a better predictor of college success than SAT.

      • I teach C students with more perseverance and work ethic than many A and B students who are lazy and coast on their intelligence. We are trying to reduce to a few numbers what is actually a complexity.

    • Laura H. Chapman permalink

      David has not considered that college and career ready and all of these references to test scores and grade levels are based on a lot of assumptions that are irrelevant to life after school and entry into college if, for example, you aspire to major in music, or dance, or theater, or some branch of the visual arts unthered to commerce and profit seeking.
      I will grant that some degree of fluency in the three Rs are enduring and nearly universal prerequisites for negotiating the exigencies of living…but the entire universe of educational research and thinking has been seriously distorted by the mania for testing.
      I worked on the items for the first two NAEP tests in the visual arts. I was also among those who interpreted the results for the ” report card.” The results that mattered were less about what students knew, could do, and how they valued diverse forms of art than the failure of schools to provide coherent instruction of any kind.
      The mania for secure testing is also an impediment to learning from the tests. In the Netherlands, a compulsory test in the arts and humanities was devised for video presentation and online responses. There were secure portals for students while in school, summary scores in short order, but not for high stakes stack ratings. After that ritual, the whole test was available for citizens, who eagerly took to the test and relished seeing their collective response along side the scores of students. The citizen version had a comment path back to the test making authority. There are alternatives to the absurdities in the current testing industry.

  3. Ben permalink

    Lets call it as it is. Ms Brown is clearly dissatisfied with public school results. Apparently, she feels students who are privately educated are far better prepared academically. She went to private schools. She is better prepared. For what I don’t know. As a person who is privately educated (aka smarter), she is astoundingly stupid. Basis for my observation? Stupid is as stupid does.

    • Donna permalink

      Ah, but she doesn’t want private schools for all, she wants charter schools for some – charters, which by and large are no panacea to the public schools for all the reasons we all know and need no further repeating. She is the new face of old money who gets paid handsomely to spout lies and half-truths. Lets keep calling her out on this – it won’t matter to the monied interests that pay her salary and way through reform, but at least it will educate those who are preyed upon.

  4. Ken Watanabe permalink

    That tele-Gennie was so embarrassed that she eventually sunk into a Corona Beer(CB) bottle. She must have been drunk too much, I guess.

  5. This is a perfect rebuttal to CB’s nit-picking about “grade-level proficient!” Thank you.

    However, your previous rebuttal to use of the term “telegenic” assumes that a word has a fixed meaning at all times and in all contexts. Diane Ravitch uses the term to imply CB is just a pretty face.

  6. No test publisher has ever been more diligent that the National Assessment Governing Board and the National Center for Education Statistics in developing and offering a student achievement assessment of the highest quality. NAEP was developed via the technology of Item Response Theory, which estimates item statistics and student scale score results, but not cut-scores for achievement levels. Cut-score setting was and continues to be a political exercise. Even today, NAEP achievement level results are supposed to be reported ONLY on a trial basis, to be interpreted and used with caution. Federal law still requires that the NAEP achievement levels be used on a trial basis until the Commissioner of Education Statistics determines that the achievement levels are “reasonable, valid, and informative to the public.” So far, no Commissioner has made such a determination, and the achievement levels remain in a trial status. See

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