Lower Standards in Schools: Preschool Edition

The new report from the National Center for Education Statistics calls into question whether we need a new $8 billion federal investment in early education challenge fund or whether we need to be spending scarce taxpayer resources on fixing the schools.

Today the New York Times reports on a new study from the National Center for Education Statistics that examines the rigor of proficiency standards from one state to another.

In the study, researchers compared the results of state tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2005 and 2007, identifying a score on the national assessment that was equivalent to each state’s definition of proficiency.

The study found wide variation among states, with standards highest in Massachusetts and South Carolina. Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee had standards that were among the lowest.

What do Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee have in common besides setting a very low bar for proficiency for their kids? They all have what advocates consider to be gold-standard state-run preschool programs. Georgia and Oklahoma have universal programs.

There is a huge disconnect between these states spending billions in taxpayer funds on early education and then being in the very bottom for proficiency standards for 4th and 8th graders in math and reading in the nation. What’s the point?

And it gets much worse! Not only do these states score very low when compared to federal benchmarks and other states, they have actually lowered their standards between 2005 and 2007.

Oklahoma is the poster child for high-quality universal preschool. Unfortunately, this supposed investment in high quality does not include having high standards for students once they enter elementary school. Oklahoma is perhaps the worst offender for gaming the state system and lowering proficiency rates for 4th and 8th graders so that more of them would appear proficient under the No Child Left Behind requirements for proficiency in reading and math. In fact, Oklahoma was one of three states that lowered the proficiency standards in all measured subjects and grade levels from 2005 to 2007. Georgia and Tennessee were among the 15 states that lowered proficiency standards for some of their tests in math and reading in fourth and eighth grade.

In addition, both Georgia and Oklahoma score below the national average on the just- released 2009 NAEP assessment for 4th and 8th grade math, which is considered the nation’s benchmark for student achievement:

  • The average scale score in the nation for 4th grade math on the 2009 NAEP was 239; Georgia scored 236 and Oklahoma scored 237.
  • Similarly, the average scale score in the nation for 8th grade math was 282; Georgia scored 278 and Oklahoma scored 276.

The bottom line is that the two states in the nation with huge financial commitments to universal preschool for over a decade now have the lowest expectations for K-12 students in terms of grade-level proficiency and they continue to score below average on the nation’s benchmark for student achievement.

Should the federal government really be investing more money to scale-up Oklahoma-style preschool programs that have not improved big-picture outcomes for the states that have already made these types of investments? Fix the schools, rather than spending billions more on the hope that early education can somehow compensate for low expectations in K-12 schools.