It’s Still Early, But Test Results Appear to Show Improvements

From Jim Cowen, Executive Director of the Collaborative for Student Success

Last year, most states administered assessments aligned to Common Core State Standards for the first time, establishing a new, more rigorous baseline for student achievement. As the Collaborative noted then, the milestone marked a new era in education. Finally, states began measuring students to levels reflective of the skills they need to become college and career ready, which in turn gave teachers and parents accurate, actionable information about their children’s development.

Again this year, many states administered exams calibrated to the Common Core or equally rigorous standards. Where the first year drew a starting point, this year’s results offer an indication of the progress students are making. While there are numerous factors that affect student scores, and it is still early in the Common Core implementation process, the 2016 assessments provide an important piece of evidence about whether students are moving forward, backward or not at all.

Does student performance improve under the Common Core State Standards, or state standards based on them? Although it’s too early to plant a flag, initial results indicate that the answer is YES. The original promise of Common Core is working.

Students Rising to the Challenge

In many of the states that have released 2016 scores, aggregate scores rose for all students in grades 3-8. It is notable that while much hay has been made about math – our nation’s students are rising to the challenge. Not only have scores increased, but third graders – those who have spent the majority, if not all, of their educational careers learning through the progression of the Common Core State Standards – improved by an average of more than four points.

While we only have disaggregated data by race and ethnicity for New York and Delaware, the results are encouraging and provide an early indication that our traditionally underserved students are also improving.

States That Have Shown Commitment Are Reaping the Rewards

This year’s initial assessment results demonstrate that when states have avoided political theater – and instead focused attention on supporting students and teachers – they experienced notable improvements. These states share a commitment to rigorous academic expectations, are listening and reacting to feedback from educators and the public, and continue to build on the foundation of Common Core to ensure the standards are tailored to their schools’ needs.

Arizona: Students made modest gains in both math and English language arts (ELA) across most grades. Specifically, 39 percent of 2016 math students in grades 3-8 passed (met or exceeded proficiency standards), compared to 37 percent in 2015.  ELA results were similar, where 40 percent of students in grades 3-8 passed (met or exceeded proficiency standards) compared to 37 percent last year. Notably, there was a spectacular 13-point jump in the ELA passing rate for Arizona’s fifth graders.

Colorado: Results from the Colorado Measures of Academic Success test (which features PARCC for ELA and math) showed that students in grades 3-5 improved in math over the previous year. While there is still much work to be done in closing achievement gaps, both Hispanic and black students in five grades narrowed their gap with white subgroups.

Delaware: Across every district and nearly every grade level, students improved in math and reading on the state’s Smarter Balanced assessments. Fifty-five percent of students in grades 3-8 scored proficient or above in ELA, up from 52 percent last year. In math, 44 percent of students in grades 3-8 scored proficient or higher, up from 41 percent last year. Every school district either met or improved their scores from the previous year. Black and Hispanic students saw greater gains than their white peers in third grade math and grades 3-7 ELA.

Louisiana: Students scoring “Mastery” or above in both ELA and math increased from 33 percent last year to 38 percent this year. Additionally, 65 percent scored “Basic” or above in 2015 and that number increased to 67 percent in 2016. According to the state’s department of education, historically disadvantaged student populations also experienced an increase, although not as pronounced as the general population.

New Jersey: Statewide, proficiency rates increased across the board in math and ELA on New Jersey’s PARCC exam, with only one exception, 11th-grade reading. In math, students in grades 3-8 who scored at or above proficient increased by more than four percentage-points, to 42.1 percent. In ELA, proficiency rates rose 3.34 points, to 53 percent. Importantly, across every grade more students scored proficient (either a 4 or 5), and fewer students scored in the bottom two tiers – a 1 or 2 – in both math and ELA.

New York: As the first state to administer Common Core-aligned assessments (2013), New York increased proficiency rates in both math and ELA for the third consecutive year.  In ELA, the percentage of students that met or exceeded proficiency goals rose nearly seven points over last year, to 37.9 percent. In math, student proficiency rates increased to 39.1 percent, up from 31.1 percent when New York first administered the new exams. Particularly noteworthy are the large increases in the percentages of students scoring proficient in math in early grades – these students have only known the more rigorous expectations of the Common Core.

West Virginia: Public school students increased their proficiency rates on statewide assessments in nearly every tested grade on all tested subjects, according to preliminary data. Overall, the percentage of students proficient in ELA increased from 45 to 47 percent and in math from 26 to 30 percent. Recognizing that students and educators do best when given an opportunity to focus on the same standards and assessments, the state education department also announced that West Virginia plans to stick with the Smarter Balanced exam next spring.

The Threat of New Tests, New Standards Disrupts Student Learning

As I wrote before, states that caved to political pressure and opted to “go it alone” on assessments have incurred significant costs and disruptions, and may very well end up with inferior tests. This year’s scores further articulate that reality. States that replaced consortia exams with independent tests, or, replaced the Common Core with inferior standards, have by and large experienced uneven improvements, stagnation, and even declines in student achievement.

In Ohio, for example, which replaced PARCC with an independent exam, proficiency rates came in well under half of what officials projected in high-school math. The results prompted the state Department of Education to ask the state school board to lower their definition of proficiency — a move one board member called a “train wreck”— leaving families with an arbitrary guess at how well prepared their kids really are for college or a career.

A similar example took place in neighboring Indiana, which previously replaced the Common Core (albeit with nearly identical standards) and adopted the ISTEP test in place of PARCC. Hoosier State student scores fell in all subjects across all grades. State Superintendent Glenda Ritz attributed the poor performance to the constant change in standards and assessments. Indiana is now seeking $4 million in damages from the testing vendor because their delays “caused a ripple effect in Indiana’s accountability and teacher evaluation system.”

The Message to Policymakers: Don’t Change Horses Midstream

Across the board, initial test results offer a vindication of policymakers who demonstrated the political courage to support rigorous, consistent education standards—and a strong rebuke to opponents who continue to claim the Common Core State Standards are either too challenging, or not challenging enough. For policymakers, the message should be clear: High standards and high-quality assessments are delivering promising results. To change course now would be a mistake.

In both New York and New Jersey, for example, some of the biggest gains in student achievement were among students in early grades — who have spent the majority, if not all, of their educational careers learning through the progression of the Common Core State Standards. Additionally, the data show significant improvements among minority groups, suggesting standards that hold all students to rigorous expectations are helping to narrow achievement gaps.

Still some policymakers refuse to take heed. This summer, Illinois announced it will replace PARCC with the SAT for high school students. Despite proficiency rates having increased in 2016 across most grade levels and content areas, Wyoming officials are seeking to end its affiliation with the Smarter Balanced assessment. And North Dakota announced in May that it will replace the Common Core—although State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler later made clear the process will likely build on, not replace the standards—which could necessitate a new assessment.

While most states are raising expectations and implementing assessments that provide teachers and parents with honest information, these states risk reverting to inferior accountability systems—and in states that are choosing to go it alone on assessments, potentially following in the footsteps of states like Oklahoma.

In most states, teaching to the new expectations of the Common Core State Standards are still in their early stages. Most states have only fully taught to the standards for two to three years, and many educators report they still lack adequate resources and professional development to adjust instruction to the new learning goals. Even so, states that are making a good-faith effort are now seeing returns—and others that follow in their steps are likely to achieve similar outcomes.

For policymakers, the message should be clear: High standards and high-quality assessments best serve our students’ needs, help prepare them for college and career, and are delivering promising results. To change course now would be a mistake.

By keeping the bar high for students, listening to parents and teachers, and providing the right supports, states can, and will, see their students in greater numbers achieving the ultimate end goal – readiness for the path of their choice after high school. Whether policymakers will take heed—that’s another question.