Narrowing The Grade-School Standards Gap

kids working on a test in a classroom

Good grades always make teachers happy.

And in Georgia, there were plenty of smiles after statewide testing of students, CBS News correspondent Kelly Wallace reports.

Eighty-seven percent of the state's fourth-graders were rated proficient in reading in 2005. But when Georgia's performance is measured nationally, the numbers tell a different story: Only 26 percent of the state's fourth-graders were rated proficient on a national reading test given to a sample of students in each state — a gap of 61 points.

Was the superintendent alarmed?

"Absolutely," said Douglas Remillard, superintendent of the Douglas County School System outside Atlanta. "I think all of us in education were alarmed by the gap. Our teachers were doing a pretty good job, and our test scores were pretty good, but then we didn't stack up nationally against other states."

Georgia is not alone, Wallace reports. Mississippi, Tennessee and Oklahoma are among the states in which students scored high on their state tests but significantly lower on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, according to the non-partisan Hoover Institution.

The problem, say experts, is one word: proficiency.

Each state can come up with its own definition. There is no national standard. States devise their own tests and their own standards. That has some states crying foul, accusing other states of lowering the bar to make their schools look more successful.

Just across the border from Georgia is South Carolina.

The two states score the same on that national test, but have very different results on their state tests. Just 36 percent of South Carolina fourth-graders were rated proficient in reading — far below Georgia's 87 percent.

"We are operating on a very uneven playing field right now," said Jim Ray, superintendent of the Spartanburg School District.

Ray said his state's standards are tougher than Georgia's. That could end up hurting South Carolina.

Schools face sanctions if they fail to meet proficiency levels required under No Child Left Behind.

"We would like not to be put in a position of having to lower standards to compete," Ray said. "They should be put in a position of raising, or balancing, standards so there is an even, fair evaluation of all 50 states."

Says Georgia's Superintendent for Education, Kathy Cox: "I just don't think they're looking at what Georgia has done over the course of No Child Left Behind. We're actually raising expectations for our kids, not running away."

Congress is considering making changes to the law. Some states aren't waiting. Cox says she's rolling out a new curriculum — and toughening requirements for proficiency.

"We don't want this gap," Cox said. "We think we are doing a good job of educating kids in Georgia, and we're not satisfied at all."

Experts say narrowing the gap will mean more students are making the grade — and that will be a real reason to smile.