What Does “Reading Proficiency” Mean if Only Half of Students are Meeting the Mark?

NCECF talks a lot about third grade reading proficiency. This early literacy indicator is predictive of future school and life outcomes. Because early reading proficiency is impacted by every domain of a child’s development—health, education, family and community—it’s also a good proxy for overall child well-being. 

In our Pathways to Grade-Level Reading initiative and our Campaign for Grade-Level Reading work, we cite two different assessments of reading proficiency, and they are not comparable.

  • The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests representative samples of students in each state. This assessment enables us to see how NC’s students are doing compared with the rest of the nation and provides trend data over time. The NAEP does not provide school district-level data. On the NAEP, 39 percent of North Carolina’s fourth-graders were deemed “proficient” in reading in 2017.
  • The NC third-grade reading end of grade (EOG) assessment is a North Carolina assessment that tests every third grader in the state. This assessment enables us to compare how students are doing across school districts within the state. Because the assessment is occasionally tweaked or the “proficiency” benchmark changed, the EOGs don’t provide long-term trend data. On the state EOGs, 56 percent of North Carolina’s third graders were deemed “grade level proficient” in reading.

Even though the NAEP is not comparable with the various state assessments given across the country, there has still been some attempt to monitor what has been dubbed the “proficiency gap” between them. A recent paper by Achieve places North Carolina eighth in the nation in the size of its proficiency gap between the NC third grade reading EOG and the NAEP. 

NAEP has traditionally been viewed as the gold standard assessment by progressive and conservative thinkers alike. Since the NAEP began to report out proficiency levels, however, there has been controversy on whether those cut-offs were more aspirational than realistic. For example, the best performing state in the nation, Massachusetts, has a proficiency rate of only 51 percent. If only half of kids in the best performing state in the nation are hitting the bar, is the bar too high?

NAEP seems to be listening. The panel that sets policy for the assessment recently made a slight change in wording in the cut-off levels. “Proficient” will now be referred to as “NAEP proficient,” and they will no longer refer to “performance in grade,” but instead “performance on the NAEP assessment.” The goal, perhaps, is to acknowledge that states’ assessments may be more realistic measures of grade-level reading proficiency than the NAEP. 

As yet, the panel has made no move to lower the standards that the NAEP uses to determine its cut-offs—some critics are calling for that, while others are urging that NAEP retain its higher standards.

For now, NCECF will continue to use and report on both sets of data—NAEP for state-level data, national comparison, and trend over time, and NC EOG for school district-level data.

Read more about the change and the history behind the NAEP in this EdWeek article.