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Why parents need honest, objective yardsticks to measure student learning

• Kate Wallace

Approximately 50 percent of recent high school graduates report “gaps” in preparation for life after high school, according to a new national survey released by Achieve.

To be clear, “life after high school” doesn’t just mean college. It could mean vocational school, the military or the workplace. This ought to be alarming news for parents. If your child earns a high school diploma, shouldn’t that mean he or she is ready for the next step in life?

We have had the honor of meeting and interacting with many families. And in listening to their stories, we have noticed a common thread: moms and dads want their children to have the best opportunities for a quality education.

All parents we’ve met expect a diploma to mean their kids are ready for the challenges and opportunities they will face. Yet that is not the case for many of America’s high school graduates.

Seventy-four percent of ACT-tested high school graduates fail to earn college-ready scores in the exam’s four subjects. Worse, more than half of students entering two-year colleges and nearly 20 percent of those entering four-year universities are placed in remedial classes. And if that isn’t enough evidence, between 2004-2009 nearly 25 percent of those taking the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) failed to achieve the qualifying score necessary to join the U.S. Military.

Most students who graduate from high school soon realized they have not fully mastered high school material. Their ability to graduate from college, learn valuable trades, join the military and ultimately earn living wages is too often stunted by their inability to meet the expectations of these post-secondary demands.

And when students do not measure up, we all pay the price. Thousands of high-paying jobs remain unfilled because U.S. citizens do not have the education and training they need to achieve the American Dream.

So, how can we solve this problem?

For starters, states must re-evaluate what it means for a student to be classified as proficient. In our home state of Florida, we have taken steps to raise standards and expectations for our students. Florida transitioned from the Sunshine State Standards and FCAT to the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards and FCAT 2.0 in 2011. In 2013, 56 percent of eighth graders were deemed “proficient” on FCAT 2.0 Reading. Yet, when our eighth graders took the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP is considered to be the gold standard for measuring proficiency) in reading, only 33 percent earned “proficient” scores.

This means 23 percent of Florida’s eighth graders believed they are reading on grade level, when in reality, they may not be. How would you respond if your child were one of those students considered to be proficient on one test (the FCAT 2.0 in Florida) but below grade level on another national, more widely respected test (the NAEP)?

As you can see, the difference between NAEP and individual states’ proficiency expectations are wide and varied. This discrepancy is called a “proficiency gap.” And if we want to ensure all diploma earners are ready for life after high school, it’s a gap we must close. Fortunately, Florida is positioned to raise the bar again in 2015 on the new Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) and can more closely align these proficiency expectations.

This is not an appeal to increase testing. Many parents have said there is too much testing, and Florida in particular has worked to curtail unessential state and local tests while still measuring student learning. Even so, moms and dads tell us they embrace annual testing as a means to know how their children are doing and how they compare to their peers.

Every state draws a line – also called the proficiency cut score – on their annual state test to determine if a student is proficient in the subject. So when a proficiency cut score is set too low, parents miss out on getting an honest picture of how well their children are doing.

Fortunately, a new tool allows parents to determine where their state stands compared to the NAEP’s gold standard. It shows proficiency rates on both tests and the size of the state’s “gap.” Check it out at

If your state has a large proficiency gap, this could mean your child is not on grade level when compared to his or her national or international peers. And this difference could lead to your child graduating unprepared for life after high school.

While Florida and many other states have come a long way in raising standards and student achievement, low college and career readiness rates indicate there is still more work to be done. States can close this proficiency gap by raising expectations. If states do this, parents everywhere can rest assured that their children truly are prepared for the next level.

The truth may be a tough pill to swallow. But it’s better to learn early, when there’s the chance to intervene, than to leave high school unprepared. The futures of our nation and our students depend on us getting this right.

Cristal Cole and Kate Wallace serve as Directors of Community Engagement for the Foundation for Florida’s Future (AFloridaPromise). Contact Cristal at and Kate at

For more on the proficiency gap, check out and these EdFly Blog posts:


About the author

Kate Wallace @kstreetfla

Kate serves as the Director of Community Engagement (North Florida) for the Foundation for Florida's Future (AFloridaPromise). Prior to joining AFloridaPromise, Kate served as Legislative Coordinator for The Fiorentino Group, a Florida government affairs firm based in Jacksonville. Previously, Kate served as government affairs assistant for the Washington office of Triadvocates, an Arizona government relations firm, and as staff assistant for the Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., federal government relations office. As a college student, Kate interned for the White House in Vice President Dick Cheney’s Office of Domestic Policy and for former Florida Congressman Adam Putnam’s Capitol Hill office. A central Florida native, Kate graduated from University of Florida in 2007 with a B.S. in Public Relations. Contact Kate at