Across the Country, Third-Graders are Building Math Muscles

There’s no doubt about it — students are rising to the challenge of higher standards.

In a majority of states that have released 2016 assessment scores aligned to states’ higher academic standards, students in grades 3-8 have made significant gains.  While we’ve seen math scores improve across the board, third-grade students are showing how higher standards are helping them build stronger math muscles.


Most third-grade students have had most, if not all, of their instruction aligned to higher standards. In 31 out of 34 states (and the District of Columbia) that have released assessment scores aligned to these higher standards, the number of third-graders achieving proficiency rose an average of 3.2 percentage points—which equals over 91,000 more third-grade students reaching proficiency in 2016.

State Spotlights

As the scores continue to roll in, the following examples show that impressive gains are being made across the country:

Louisiana – 9 percentage points
Third-graders in Louisiana saw the biggest gains in the country in math. According to the state’s department of education, historically disadvantaged student populations also experienced an increase.

Rhode Island – 7.4 percentage points
Rhode Island students made among the strongest gains in math, compared to performance in states across the country. The average increase of students reaching proficiency was just over five percentage points, with third-graders making impressive gains of 7.4 percentage points.

California – 6 percentage points
California’s statewide assessment results show that the state made significant improvements in math in the second year of Smarter Balanced exams. The number of students reaching proficiency rose by 6 percentage points, with Hispanic students seeing the biggest gains.

Teacher Perspectives

Many teachers are not surprised that their students are making meaningful gains in math. Here are a few observations from teachers about how high, rigorous standards have changed the way they teach—and their students learn—mathematical concepts:

  • “As a kindergarten teacher, I know how important it is for children to build a strong foundation for knowledge early in life. At the kindergarten level, students are just beginning to understand the relationship between numbers and quantities, and it’s important that they master these concepts before moving on to more advanced levels of math. With the Common Core, my students are understanding these relationships earlier and exploring different ways to count and compare numbers.” –Meka Wilhoit, Kindergarten Teacher in Frankfurt, Kentucky


  • “The goal of math classes should be to foster a deep-level understanding of the mechanisms that we teach, and that’s where compelling students to learn a variety of techniques for subtraction, for example, can allow students to approach a concept from a variety of different directions, using a variety of different tools, and tying it to other concepts they learn. This is, in a nutshell, what teaching mathematical understandings at a deep level should be doing. And this variety of approaches to build deep level understandings is exactly what the Common Core seeks to do.” – Jim Goodman, High School Math Teacher in Northeast Ohio


  • “I see the positive impact of the new standards when I review my sons’ homework. My third-grade son is working to understand the reasoning behind the math facts he learns. He is still memorizing the multiplication tables, but he is also learning that multiplication is repeated addition. This means that when he gets to high school, he will understand that math is not just about plugging in formulas or solving random equations. This understanding and willingness to use critical thinking and writing in the math classroom allows us to explore, do projects, and truly understand math—as opposed to memorizing more math facts.” – Nicole Smith, High School Math Teacher in North Carolina


Across the country, kids are rising to the challenge of higher standards and the results are promising. While there are numerous factors that account for the rise in student achievement, high standards are a critical component.  As we continue to support our third-graders—and all our students—we must continue to hold them to high expectations and help them build math muscles that will last a lifetime.