The Most Misused Statistics In Education.


Moms for Liberty tweeted that 68% of children can’t read on grade level.

Betsy DeVos said in a speech that two-thirds of students can’t read at grade level, and the media reported that claim at face value.

It sounds bad, doesn’t it. Fortunately, it wasn’t true.

The problem comes from the term “proficiency” as used by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the test that serves as “the nation’s report card.” The NAEP uses three achievement levels to report results: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced (four if your count Below Basic).

The problem is two fold. One part of the problem is that “proficient” is used on many state and local assessments to mean “at grade level,” or what once upon a time would have been called a gentleman’s C; this leads to some honest confusion for some folks. The other part of the problem is folks who are invested in the narrative that public schools are failing and who benefit from the confusion surrounding the term.

The National Center for Education Statistics operates the NAEP, and they are aware there’s an issue. On their website, the language is quite clear. After noting that NAEP Proficient means that the students “demonstrate solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter,” the website says:

It should be noted that the NAEP Proficient achievement level does not represent grade level proficiency as determined by other assessment standards (e.g., state or district assessments).

They provide more detailed information about state standards, again explaining that NAEP Proficiency is not the same as state proficiency. It’s more analogous to an A than a C. And every time NAEP scores are released, education journalists write piece after piece explaining “proficient” all over again, usually in the wake of some prominent person decrying the large number of students not “at grade level.”

Can we further muddy the water? Certainly. There are long-standing debates about how NAEP standards are set, with some critics arguing they are set too high. Back in 2007, NCES found that half of the students who only ranked Basic had still gone on to achieve a Bachelor’s Degree or higher.

Add to the muddle some confusion around the concept of “at grade level.” Simply defined, grade level reading is the reading that most—but not all—students in that grade can read. Practically speaking, that means having all students read at grade level is as impossible as having all students score above average. Some percentage of students will always be reading below grade level.

The lesson is this: whenever someone starts throwing around statistics citing a scary-high number of students being unable to read or do math, ask where that figure came from, and if it really means what they say it means.

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