It’s not exactly news that the federal No Child Left Behind program has encouraged the states to define proficiency downward in order to avoid triggering various federal sanctions. But judging from Education Next’s recent grading of state proficiency standards, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program is no fix. Here’s the journal’s overall finding: “Every state, for both reading and math (with the exception of Massachusetts for math), deems more students ‘proficient’ on its own assessments than NAEP [the National Assessment of Educational Progress] does. The average difference is a startling 37 percentage points.”

But perhaps even more startling is that “Tennessee received an F and had the lowest standards of all states” yet was also one of the two winners in the first phase of the Race to the Top (RttT) competition. Education Next reports:

Based on its own tests and standards, the state claimed in 2009 that over 90 percent of its 4th-grade students were proficient in math, whereas NAEP tests revealed that only 28 percent were performing at a proficient level. Results in 4th-grade reading and at the 8th-grade level are much the same. … Delaware, the other RttT First Phase winner, also had below-average standards, for which we awarded a grade of C- and ranked it 36th of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. … Tennessee earned almost full marks (98 percent) on the section of the [Race to the Top] competition … devoted to “adopting standards and assessments,” even though its standards have remained extremely low ever since the federal accountability law took hold.

The Department of Education appears to have rewarded Tennessee not for raising its standards but for promising to raise its standards. Maybe it’s following the example of Bart Simpson, who once quipped: “I can’t promise I’ll try, but I’ll try to try.” [See “State Standards Rising in Reading but Not in Math,” by Paul E. Peterson and Carlos Xabel Lastra-Anadón, Education Next, Fall 2010.]