A new study, “Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scales: 2005-2007,” concludes that, compared to other states, Illinois sets a low bar for assessing whether students “meet standards” on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT). The report was issued by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the Institute of Education Sciences and the U.S. Department of Education.

Comparison to Other States

In conducting the study, researchers used the National Assessment of Education Progress (NEAP) test as the yardstick. The NAEP test is given to a sampling of fourth- and eighth-graders every two years in all 50 states as part of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Because students in each state took the NAEP test, researchers were able to determine where each state’s standard for measuring proficiency on their respective tests fell along a common scale, the NAEP test. “When state standards are placed onto the NAEP reading or mathematics scales, the level of achievement required for proficient performance in one state can then be compared with the level of achievement required in another state,” says the report.

The study found that Illinois sets less rigorous standards for determining proficiency than other states. At the fourth-grade level, Illinois standards for proficient performance on the ISATs ranked 25th in reading and 42nd in math, when compared to other states. The report also found that the scale scores (the passing grades) selected by Illinois to “meet standards” in both reading and math on the ISATs, are at achievement levels that would place a student in the “below basic” performance category on the NAEP test. NAEP has four performance categories: below basic, basic, proficient and advanced.

At the eighth-grade level, Illinois standards for proficient performance on the ISATs ranked 37th in reading and 44th in math, when compared to other states. Again, the scale scores selected by Illinois to “meet standards” in both reading and math on the ISATs, are at achievement levels that would place a student in the “below basic” performance category on the NAEP test.

The report says it is not intended to suggest deficiencies in either the state tests or in NAEP but to compare state standards against a common goal.

Increases on the ISATs Between 2005-07

The study also examined whether the percentage of students who met standards on the ISATs increased at a higher rate between 2005 and 2007 than they did on the NAEP test in the same period. “The expectation was that both the state assessment and NAEP would show the same changes in achievement between the two years,” says the report.

The report found, however, Illinois students showed significantly higher increases on the ISATs than on the NAEP test. The number of Illinois eighth-graders who met standards in reading on the ISAT increased by 7.8 percentage points more than the increase on NAEP, and the number of Illinois eighth-graders who met standards in math on the ISAT increased by 24.3 percentage points more than the increase on NAEP.

The report says the differences could be explained by a decrease in the rigor of the state’s proficiency standards, a focus of instruction on state-specific content, or other changes. Illinois made numerous changes to the ISATs in 2006.

2009 NAEP Results

Four weeks ago, NAEP reported in the Nation’s Report Card that only 33% of Illinois eighth-graders were “proficient” in math on the 2009 NAEP test. By contrast, 82% met standards on the ISATs, a difference of 49 percentage points. Reading scores on the 2009 NAEP test are not yet available.