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Author ORCID Identifier


Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program


Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Stephen G. Sireci

Second Advisor

Craig S. Wells

Third Advisor

Linda R. Tropp

Subject Categories

Education | Educational Assessment, Evaluation, and Research | Educational Psychology | Elementary Education | Reading and Language | School Psychology | Secondary Education


As a result of federal accountability policies, achievement level labels from statewide assessments are ascribed to public school students 17 times between grades 3 and 12. Depending on students’ performance and state of residence, they may be labeled inadequate or in need of support, below proficient or approaching expectations, level 3 or on track—to name a few examples. These labels are delivered through individual reports for students and parents as well as group reports for teachers. In spite of their widespread use, research on how achievement level labels are interpreted is minimal. The aim of this study was to improve the current understanding of how teachers, parents, and students make sense of such labels to promote better-informed labeling decisions.

To that end, teachers (N = 51) and parents (N = 50) completed an online survey that involved sorting tasks, scale ratings, top-three selections, and open-ended questions. Meanwhile, students (N = 24) participated in semi-structured interviews that included a brief survey component. Achievement level labels for statewide assessments from all 50 states were investigated. Since some states use the same labels, there were 28 unique labels for the lowest level of achievement (“Lowest”), 18 for the level denoting proficiency (“Medium”), and 27 for the one or two levels between those categories (“Low”).

Multidimensional scaling revealed key dimensions that distinguished the labels within each set from one another, including the use of specific words as well as differences in tone. The findings also suggest that some Low and Medium labels denoting the same level of achievement in fact imply different achievement levels. For instance, approaching proficient was perceived as indicating substantially more achievement than basic; the same was true for standard met compared to sufficient command. Additionally, some labels were perceived as more encouraging (e.g., in need of support, not yet meeting expectations) and others as clearer than their counterparts (e.g., standard not met, pass). Teachers’, parents’, and students’ perceptions and preferences were similar, with a few exceptions that are discussed in detail along with students’ comments about their preferred labels and labeling advice from teachers and parents. Recommendations are provided.