# South Carolina. 180 The Proficiency Illusion

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2 Applying that approach to this assignment, we evaluated the difficulty of South Carolina s proficiency standards by estimating the proportion of students in NWEA s norm group who would perform above the South Carolina standard on a test of equivalent difficulty. The following two figures show the difficulty of South Carolina s proficiency cut scores for reading (Figure 1) and mathematics (Figure 2) in 06 in relation to the median cut score for all the states in the study. The proficiency cut scores for reading in South Carolina ranged between the 43rd and 71st percentiles nationally, with the eighth grade cut score being most challenging. In mathematics, the proficiency cut scores ranged between the 64th and 75th percentiles, with eighth grade again the most challenging. Across grades 3 through 8, South Carolina s cut scores in both reading and mathematics are consistently more difficult than the median cut scores of the other states in the study, and above the performance of the average student of that grade within the NWEA norm group. Note, though, that South Carolina s cut scores for reading are generally lower than for mathematics. (This pattern was spotted in the majority of states studied.) Thus, reported differences in achievement between the two subjects may be more a product of differences in cut scores than in actual student achievement. In other words, South Carolina students may be performing worse in reading and better in mathematics than is apparent by just looking at the percentages that pass state tests in those subjects. Another way of assessing difficulty is to evaluate how South Carolina s proficiency cut scores rank relative to other states in the study. Table 1 shows that the South Carolina cut scores generally rank among the very top of the 26 states studied for this report. Figure 1 South Carolina Reading Cut Scores in Relation to All 26 States Studied, 06 (Expressed in MAP Percentiles) Percentile Score On NWEA Norm Grade Grade 4 Grade 5 Grade 6 Grade 7 Grade 8 State cut scores Median cut score across all states studied Note: This figure compares reading test cut scores ( proficiency passing scores ) as percentiles of the NWEA norm. These percentiles are compared with the median cut score of all 26 states reviewed in this study. South Carolina s cut scores across all grades are above the median, ranging from 12.5 to 37 percentile points above. South Carolina 181

3 Figure 2 South Carolina Mathematics Cut Scores in Relation to All 26 States Studied, 06 (Expressed in MAP Percentiles) Percentile Score On NWEA Norm Grade Grade 4 Grade 5 Grade 6 Grade 7 Grade State cut scores Median cut score across all states studied Note: South Carolina s math test cut scores are shown as percentiles of the NWEA norm and compared with the median cut score of all 26 states reviewed in this study. Across all grades, the state s cut scores surpass the median by 25 to 38 points. Table 1 South Carolina Rank for Proficiency Cut Scores Among 26 States in Reading and Mathematics, 06 Ranking (Out of 26 States) Reading Mathematics Note: This table ranks South Carolina s cut scores relative to the cut scores of the other 25 states in the study. South Carolina ranks number one in four grades for reading and in three grades for mathematics. 182 The Proficiency Illusion

5 Figure 3 Estimated Differences in South Carolina s Proficiency Cut Scores in Reading, (Expressed in MAP Percentiles) Percentile Cut Score for Proficient Spring 02 Spring 06 Difference Note: This graphic shows how the difficulty of achieving proficiency in reading has changed. For example, third-grade students in 02 had to score at the 61st percentile of the NWEA norm nationally in order to be considered proficient, while in 06 third graders had to score at the 43rd percentile of the NWEA norm to achieve proficiency. The changes in grades 6, 7, and 8 were within the margin of error (in other words, too small to be considered substantive). Figure 4 Estimated Change in South Carolina s Proficiency Cut Scores in Mathematics, (Expressed in MAP Percentiles) Percentile Cut Score for Proficient Spring 02 Spring 06 Difference Note: This graphic shows how the difficulty of achieving proficiency in math has changed. For example, sixth-grade students in 02 had to score at the 72nd percentile of the NWEA norm group in order to be considered proficient, while in 06 sixth graders only had to score at the 65th percentile of the NWEA norm to achieve proficiency. The changes in grades 3, 4, 5, and 7 were within the margin of error (in other words, too small to be considered substantive). 184 The Proficiency Illusion

7 Figure 6 South Carolina Mathematics Performance as Reported and as Calibrated to the Grade-8 Standard, 06 % % Percent of students proficient % % % % 0% Reported Performance Calibrated Performance 35% 42% 34% 37% 32% 22% 31% 31% 31% 27% 25% 22% Note: This graphic shows, for example, that if South Carolina s grade-3 mathematics standard was set at the same level of difficulty as its grade-8 cut score, 31 percent of third graders would achieve the proficient level, rather than 35 percent, as was reported by the state. Policy Implications South Carolina s proficiency cut scores in reading and math are relatively high, at least compared with the other 25 states in this study. This finding is consistent with the recent National Center for Education Statistics report, Mapping 05 State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales, which also found South Carolina s standards to be among the highest in the country. In the past several years, however, the difficulty of these cut scores has declined, though not in all grades. As a result, South Carolina s expectations are not smoothly calibrated across grades, at least in reading; students who are proficient in third grade are not necessarily on track to be proficient by the eighth grade. South Carolina policymakers might consider adjusting their reading cut scores across grades so that parents and schools can be assured that elementary school students scoring at the proficient level are truly prepared for success later in their educational careers. 186 The Proficiency Illusion

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