Preparing students to succeed in an increasingly competitive, global job market is a leading concern for parents and policy makers these days. So how do American academic proficiency standards stack up to those in other countries? That depends on which state standards you use, according to a new report from the American Institutes for Research (AIR):

When the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law was enacted in 2001, it required states to show steady improvement in student performance in reading and mathematics, with the goal of having all students proficient by 2014. Each state was responsible for setting their standards to measure and define the term “proficiency.” The study used international benchmarks to grade states by statistically linking state tests to the state National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), then linking national NAEP to national TIMSS [Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study] or PIRLS [Progress in International Reading Literacy Study] data. 

Thus study author Gary Phillips compares the rigor of state standards to the Nation’s Report Card, or NAEP, as well as two widely respected international assessments. Specifically, he looks at critical grade levels and subjects: fourth grade math and reading, and eighth grade math and science. Phillips finds:

As public debate intensifies over the use of Common Core standards in U.S. schools, this study looks at the proficiency standards currently employed for reading, mathematics and science. …

“Residents of some states think their students are doing well because almost all of them are considered proficient,” said Dr. Gary Phillips, an AIR vice president and Institute Fellow. “This study shows there is considerable variance in state performance standards, with a wide expectations gap that most parents have no idea exists.” …

The findings include:

States reporting the highest percent of proficient students had the lowest performance standards. More than two-thirds of the difference in state success is related to how high or low the states set their performance standards.

The difference between the states with the highest and lowest standards is about two standard deviations – a statistical term denoting the amount of variation from the average. In many testing programs, a gap this large represents three to four grade levels.

The percentage of proficient students for most states declined when compared with international standards. In Grade 8 mathematics, for example, Alabama went from 77 percent proficient to 15 percent; Colorado from 80 percent to 35 percent; Oklahoma from 66 percent to 20 percent; and New Jersey from 71 percent to 50 percent.

Using international standards, Massachusetts climbed to 57 percent proficient from 52 percent under its own standards.

Phillips findings confirm that parents are being led down the garden path because what passes as “proficiency” according to politicians is hardly what most reasonable people would consider proficient.

However, Phillips and others are incorrect to assume that the solution is to let Washington, DC, call the standards shots through Common Core.

For all the superficial appeal of uniform academic standards throughout the country, there’s absolutely no evidence that Washington knows best. On the contrary, a leading reason why state academic standards frankly stink in most cases is because elected officials bowed to political pressure to water down standards, as well as game passing scores and other statistical shenanigans away from public scrutiny, to inflate the number of students deemed “proficient.”

I am not aware of any Common Core advocate who has ever guaranteed that such political gaming would not occur under Washington’s watch. I’d argue that on the contrary, political pressure to manipulate American student proficiency rates under Common Core would be even greater.

Moving toward more political control over education is the last thing we should be doing. Instead, we should be reversing course and increasing parental control over education. Parents, not politicians, are the ones who love and know their children best. They, not elected officials or special interest groups, are the ones with real skin in the game.

Let schools choose the standards assessments they think are best.

Give parents accurate, accessible, and actionable information about the academic standards used to measure their children’s progress, and let them decide if that’s good enough to enroll their children.

With children’s associated education funding at stake, schools would have powerful incentives to adopt rigorous assessments, hire and pay for great teachers, and be transparent about real performance results.

It’s time to put parents back in charge of their children’s education, and take the politics out.