The majority of Maryland's fourth-graders are either reading whizzes or they are stumbling miserably. It all depends on who is doing the testing.
If it's the federal government, only 32 percent of Maryland's fourth-graders are proficient at reading. But if state educators are accurate, 81 percent of fourth-graders have met a passing standard.
A renewed debate over testing erupted across the country after the release of a new round of national assessments in reading and math that showed enormous gaps between the national tests and the state tests required under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Some educators say states might be setting standards that are too low, in essence dumbing-down their tests to meet a federal requirement that says 100 percent of schoolchildren should be able to pass the exams by 2014.
The federal law "has created an incentive for states to lower their standards," said Michael J. Petrilli, vice president of the Fordham Foundation, which does education research and supports educational reform projects.
Maryland officials acknowledge that their test is easier but say there are good reasons:
The state scores carry serious consequences for students and schools that the national test doesn't. And the standard set by the national test is "a very high bar," said Gary Heath, assistant state superintendent for accountability and assessment.
"In the nation, do you believe that only 30 percent of the kids are proficient in reading?" he asked.
That is the percentage of fourth-graders who scored "proficient" in reading on the national test, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP. The national test results place children in several categories, including below-basic, basic, proficient and advanced.
Heath points out that if the percentage of students scoring at basic and above were counted together, the results would look more like Maryland results on the state test.
The gaps in other states are even more pronounced than in Maryland. In Mississippi, for example, only 18 percent of fourth-graders were considered proficient in reading on the NAEP last year, compared with a pass rate of 89 percent on the state test.
And in North Carolina, 27 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in reading compared with 88 percent on the statewide test. In some states, the gap between the two tests is often 20 or 30 percentage points.
Fordham has tried to look not just at the differences in scores on the two tests, but also at how big the state gains are from one year to the next. The analysis seems to indicate that some states could be dumbing-down their state tests a little each year to make it easier for students to pass, Petrilli said.
That is not the case in Maryland - which happened to be in the process of writing a new state test when the No Child law came along and could therefore take into account the new law.
School superintendents in Maryland don't necessarily think the state test is too easy.
"The report I get from the field is that these are very rigorous tests," said Betty Morgan, superintendent of schools in Washington County.
Morgan said she suspects that the national exam might be testing items that aren't typically being taught in Maryland. "It is a matter of teaching and exposure to the material," she said.
The stakes are high.
Under the federal law, the standards rise each year so that a growing percentage of students have to pass their state tests. And that is not just a percentage of students in a school, but also the percentage of children in every subgroup in a school, including children from low-income families, minorities and special education students. By 2014, all children are expected to be passing their state tests.
If a school fails to meet the standards several years in a row, its staff can be replaced. Districts with many failing schools can be taken over by the state, or the school board can be replaced.
Thus, when a state sets high standards, it has to weigh the penalties that districts might face.
"It doesn't appear that Maryland has set the bar very high," Petrilli said.
Other states had already launched new tests that were more rigorous and couldn't change them to take into account the new federal law.
So states such as South Carolina, where officials believed they were doing the right thing by setting standards high, are now caught in a dilemma. While the state's scores are more in line with the national test, many of their schools could face sanctions because the students are unlikely to pass the state tests.
The NAEP test has been charting the progress of students across the nation since the 1970s and is generally well regarded. However, Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a national education advocacy group, said the NAEP sometimes tests different skills than the state tests. For instance, school districts teach students algebra at different ages. Whether or not the NAEP is an accurate test of what is being taught, Jenkins said, it has served an important purpose in raising questions about the rigor of the state exams.
Among the issues that have re-emerged since the national results were released in October is whether there should be one national test taken by all students across the country to judge proficiency under No Child Left Behind, thus leveling the differences between state standards.
Such a test had been proposed by President Bush and the two presidents before him, and it was proposed as part of No Child but rejected. States have consistently argued that local governments should be deciding what is taught in public schools rather than the federal government.
But there seems to be a more serious discussion now of a nationwide test.
"We think it is going to happen eventually. There is no way in this world of global competition that the math you need to learn in Springfield, Mass., is different than the math you need to learn in Springfield, Mo.," Petrilli said.
Maryland's state board of education would not be opposed to a national exam, said Ronald Peiffer, deputy state superintendent, as long as the federal government created national standards that would identify for states what should be taught in each grade. That would give all students a fair chance to pass the test.
However, Jennings believes that given the resistance to the federal law, which some states have unsuccessfully challenged in court, it is unlikely that states would soon embrace a national test.
Howard County's school superintendent, Sydney L. Cousin, is among those who would be against a national test.
"Education is a state-supported endeavor," he said.
Ron Weiner of the Education Trust believes the issue that should drive standards is what students will need to know once they graduate and get a job or go to college. Perhaps the standards are too low if a large percentage of students need remedial classes before they go to college, he said.
"We need to ask questions about whether the state standards are rigorous enough."