ATLANTA - Two years after Georgia toughened state-mandated tests based on beefed up reading and math curricula, some testing experts say the state's standards may still be too easy.
Students performed far better on Georgia's Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests than they did on the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress - a standardized test given nationwide - a sign that Georgia's test could need more overhauling.
Testing experts warned that the nuances of standardized tests can be complicated. Many factors probably caused the score gap, experts said.
'In the case of Georgia, I think it is that the (state) test is easier,' said George Madaus, a testing researcher and former director of the Center for the Study of Testing Evaluation and Education Policy at Boston College.
On CRCT, 85 percent of Georgia fourth graders are considered 'proficient' or better, compared to 28 percent on the NAEP. In math, 78 percent of fourth graders are proficient, compared to 32 percent on the NAEP.
For eighth graders, 89 percent are considered at least proficient in reading, compared to 26 percent on the NAEP. In math, it's 81 percent compared to 25 percent.
State school officials and the National Assessment Governing Board, which administers NAEP, say the two tests shouldn't be compared because they have different content and are scored differently. What is considered a 'proficient' score on NAEP is not the same thing as 'proficient' on the Georgia test.
'The comparison is not an apples to apples comparison,' said state Department of Education spokesman Dana Tofig.
Testing experts also offer a multiple reasons why Georgia students would do so much better on the state test than the national test.
The state's curriculum is based on the CRCT questions, not the NAEP material. That easily could translate into worse scores on the national test, said Eva Baker, director of the Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA.
But the gap also could mean that the Georgia test sets a lower standard than NAEP, which is common in many states, Baker and other experts said. States are under pressure to make sure students perform well on their state-administered tests, which are part of how the federal No Child Left Behind law measures 'adequate yearly progress' in each state.
A school that doesn't meet adequate yearly progress two years in a row goes on a federal 'needs improvement' list and must provide extra tutoring and other services to students. There are no consequences if a state doesn't perform well on NAEP, which means states are much more likely to pay attention to their own tests than to the national test.
'What these comparisons can point to in a very rough way is that some states set the bar higher than others,' said Michael Petrilli, vice president for national program and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
Most Southern states, like Georgia, have state test scores that are far ahead of NAEP scores. In Alabama, 83 percent of fourth graders passed the state standard for reading in 2005, while just 22 percent of those students performed at 'proficient' level on NAEP, according to the most recent comparison report from the Southern Regional Education Board.
In that report, nearly 9 out of 10 of Georgia fourth graders meet the state standard for reading, just 26 percent were proficient on NAEP. For Mississippi, the scores were 89 percent on the state test and 18 percent on NAEP.
In Florida, 71 percent of fourth graders met the state standard for reading while 30 percent were 'proficient' on NAEP.
But states, including Georgia, have recognized the lagging scores and are beginning to raise standards on their tests, said Joan Lord with the Southern Regional Education Board.
In 2005, Arkansas revised several tests and set new cut scores in reading and math. Two years ago, Georgia beefed up its reading and math curriculum and toughened tests.
Last year, North Carolina raised how many questions students must answer correctly to pass the math test.
'Georgia made a considerable gain this year,' Lord said. 'There is some real promise there.'