Nearly a Decade Later, Did the Common Core Work? Checking the facts

It’s been nearly ten years since states began adopting the Common Core State Standards and over that time a majority of states have worked to implement higher standards and assessments in an effort to help to prepare more students for success. In April, a study from the American Institutes for Research utilized NAEP data to examine the effects of the standards on student performance over that period of time and has found mixed results.

We praise the study authors for examining the impact of the standards – yet there are multiple ways to examine and view success and focusing solely on federal NAEP exam is limiting, given that broad statements across the board fail to account for vast differences in implementation and other education policy changes in each state.

A review of student performance on statewide assessments that have been in place for four year shows that there are reasons to be optimistic. Of note in particular is, during that time frame, more than 460,000 students of color reached proficient in ELA and math. Indeed, several states with high-quality academic standards and annual state assessments aligned to those standards have seen positive trends in student performance – without lowering cut scores for what constitutes proficiency. For example, the following gains relate to the increase in students reaching grade-level proficiency:

  • States utilizing the Smarter Balanced assessment (CA, DE, ID, OR, SD, VT,WA) have seen an approximate 4 percentage point gain in 4th and 8th grade ELA and a 3.7 percentage point gain and 3.3 percentage point gain in 4th and 8th grade math, respectively.
  • States utilizing the PARCC assessment (or comparable) over the same period (CO, DC, IL, LA, MD, NJ, NM) have seen a 4.5 percentage point gain in ELA in 4th grade and a 5.1 percentage point gain in 8th In math, 4th graders saw a 5.7 percentage point increase.

It’s also important to look at state-specific examples and the contexts within states, since “averages” across large groups of students can mask strong results. For instance, as noted in our Success Is Trending memo, student proficiency rates in California among Hispanic students are increasing at a greater rate than the state’s average. In grades 3-8, Hispanic students have seen an average percentage point increase of 8.2 in ELA and 6.6 in math. This can be compared to 6.7 in ELA and 5.7 in math for all students in California. In New Jersey, African American and Hispanic students have made remarkable gains in ELA in grades 3-8. African American students have seen an average percentage point increase of 9.5 in ELA since 2015, and Hispanic students have seen an average percentage point increase of 10.9 in the same time period. By comparison, the state average is a 7.8 percentage point increase in ELA.

These gains among traditionally-underserved students are particularly promising because they show how some states are making progress towards the goal of achieving equity in education. And these positive trends among states also have a real-life impact: 262,968 more students of color have reached proficiency in ELA and 204,162 more in math over the past four years – and that data is only for the 18 states that report this information. As a result, these students have greater opportunities for future success in college and careers.  While many might be quick to use AIR’s study to advance a political agenda in opposition to the Common Core brand, it is critical to put students first and not derail the great progress many states have been making.

Without high expectations for our students, schools, and state education systems, we will not be able to give kids the skills and knowledge they will need later on in life. Rigorous academic standards and aligned assessments are critical for setting and maintaining a high bar, and we must support educators with proper training, professional development, and materials relevant to the standards they are teaching.

As a nation we cannot lose the resolve to do better for our students –lowering the bar isn’t an option.