Scores on the Rise: Majority of States with High Standards in Place See Improvement

On October 5, 2016 Collaborative for Student Success Executive Director Jim Cowen released the following memo on the states’ recent test scores:

A few weeks ago, I wrote that states with tests aligned to new, higher academic standards were beginning to report year-over-year scores. Students, parents, teachers and policymakers could now assess student progress and adjust instruction accordingly by comparing test results from multiple years—a significant step in preparing students for college and career.

About six states had reported scores at the time of my last memo (August 15th).  Today, nearly all states with high, comparable standards have reported their academic progress through the 2015-16 school year.

While there are numerous factors that affect student scores, and it is still too early to make definitive declarations, the 2016 assessments suggest that the promise of higher academic standards—whatever they may be called—is working.

Students Rising to the Challenge

In a majority of states that have released scores for the 2015-16 school year, aggregate scores rose for students in grades 3-8. It is notable that, while much hay has been made about “fuzzy” or “new” math—early introduction to conceptual math, and a focus on showing students multiple ways of solving problems, is benefitting our nation’s students. Not only have scores increased, but more third-graders are on grade-level than in previous years. While math has been much maligned on social media, third-graders—who have had most, if not all, of their instruction aligned to the increased rigor of the Common Core—are proving that they are up to the challenge, with proficiency rates improving by nearly four points across the country. Similarly, fourth-graders improved by just over three points.

While we only have disaggregated data by race and ethnicity for some states, the results are encouraging and provide an early indication that our traditionally underserved students are also improving. For example, in Vermont, sixth and eighth-grade Hispanic students saw proficiency rates grow 15 and 13 percentage points (respectively) in English Language Arts (ELA); in Colorado, black fourth-graders grew more than four percentage points in ELA compared to the previous year’s fourth graders―more than any of their peers.  We still have a long way to go, but early signs show that we’re moving in the right direction.

State Spotlights

As the scores continue to roll in, several states have distinguished themselves for their aggregate gains in ELA and math. While many states have bright spots, California, Louisiana, South Dakota and Connecticut stand out for making some of the greatest aggregate gains in each subject area. These states have also led in ensuring teachers were supported with resources and strong professional development. No one factor can account for why certain states have experienced more growth than others, but, states who have remained committed to the standards and to supporting their students and teachers are seeing the largest gains.

Click here to see how third graders across the country are making gains in math.

State Overviews

A note on this state-by state review: Low proficiency rates are nothing to be proud of.  Clearly, there is much work to be done. But we are encouraged by the upward trend in student progress made possible by staying the course with high, comparable standards.

Arizona: Students made modest gains in both math and 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 since last year. (KTAR News, 9/16/16)

California: California’s statewide assessment results show that the state made improvements in both math and ELA in the second year of Smarter Balanced exams. Forty-nine percent of students scored at or above proficiency in ELA, up five points from last year. In math, 37 percent were proficient or above, a four-point increase. (Los Angeles Times, 8/24/16)

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. (Denver Post, 9/16/16)

Connecticut: Using the Smarter Balanced assessment in grades 3-8, more students improved this year than last with an increase of four percentage points in math, up from 40 percent last year, and an increase of three percentage points in ELA, from 54 percent last year. Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell suggested that the achievement gap is narrowing among the youngest students tested—third-graders―because of their consistent basis in lessons taught to higher academic standards. (Hartford Courant, 8/19/16)

Delaware: Across every district and nearly every grade level, more students reached proficiency 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 3-5 in ELA. (Delaware State News, 7/21/16)

District of Columbia: The District of Columbia public and charter school systems showed improvement in math and ELA in its second year of using PARCC testing. Math was a particular bright spot with scores for third-graders rising an average of seven percentage points since 2015. (WTOP, 8/30/2016 &, 9/02/16)   

Georgia: Georgia Milestones tests, given for the second straight year to students in grades 3-8, showed a proficiency increase in 23 of 32 tests. The largest gain came from this year’s third-graders who scored seven percentage points higher than last year’s cohort. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 7/26/16)

Hawaii: Average scores for students in grades 3-8 improved by 3 percentage points in ELA and 1 percentage point in math. Third-graders, who have only known Common Core instruction, scored 3 percentage points higher in ELA and 4 percentage points higher in math compared to students last year. (Hawaii News Now, 10/5/16)

Illinois: The average scores for students in grades 3-8 improved over 2015, with scores in math rising an average of two points. (Chicago Tribune, 8/25/16)

Kentucky: Kentucky, the first state to adopt the Common Core, continued to see gains this year. Students in grades 5 and 6, who have known Common Core their whole academic careers, have grown almost 6, and 7 percentage points in math since last year, and 2 and 2.6 percentage points in ELA, respectively. (WKYT, 8/29/16)

Louisiana: Average scores for students in grades 3-8 improved in both ELA and math. According to the state’s department of education, historically disadvantaged student populations also experienced an increase, although not as pronounced as the general population. Note: Louisiana updated their test in 2016 to use a combination of PARCC test questions and questions crafted by the state; in 2015, the state only administered PARCC test questions.  (KNOE, 8/4/16)

Maryland: Maryland students made improvements on the state’s PARCC assessments in math, and scores remained steady in ELA compared to last year. The biggest gains were made in math by third-grade students, whose entire educational experience has been with the Common Core. While the average math increase was roughly 7.5 percent, Native American students gained nearly 10 percentage points (9.9), white students gained 8.6 percentage points, Hispanic students gained nearly eight (7.8) and black students nearly 7 (6.9). (The Washington Post, 8/24/16)

Michigan: The second year of administering the M-STEP test showed the largest increases in performance for ELA coming in fifth and eighth grades. In math, gains were seen in fourth and seventh grades. (, 8/30/16)

Montana: Montana students in grades 3-8 made gains on the state’s Smarter Balanced exams, and participation increased after technical problems disrupted testing last year. About 41 percent of students scored proficient or above in math, up three percentage points, and about half of students met or exceeded proficiency in ELA, up five percentage points from last year.(Helena Independent Record, 9/16/16)

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, the percentage of students in grades 3-8 who scored at or above proficient increased by more than four 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 four or five on the five-point scale), and fewer students scored in the bottom two tiers―a one or two―in both math and ELA. (New Jersey Monthly, 8/31/16)

New Mexico Scores were up nearly across the board in grades 3-8 in both math and ELA. While third grade ELA scores saw a slight decline, most scores were up with notable increases happening in math with grades 3-5 seeing growth of nearly five percentage points. According to the New Mexico Public Education Department, 77 of 89 districts showed gains. (Albuquerque Journal, 8/19/16)

New York: 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. (New York Times, 8/29/16)

North Carolina: Scores for North Carolina students in grades 3-8 improved in math across every grade. While ELA scores dipped in third and fourth grades, there were gains in grades 5-7 and results stayed constant in eighth grade. (News Observer, 9/01/16)

Oregon: Oregon scores remained mostly unchanged during the second year of administration of the Smarter Balanced assessment. Fifth-grade ELA scores, however, were a particular bright spot with average scores increasing three percentage points since last year. (Oregon Live, 09/08/16)

Pennsylvania: Average scores in grades 3-8 improved in both math and ELA. Gains were particularly encouraging in math, with an average growth of three percentage points. Pennsylvania third-graders doubled that progress, scoring nearly six percentage points higher than last year’s cohort. (, 8/22/16)

Rhode Island: Rhode Island students saw improvements in both math and ELA in grades 3-8. Notably, they made among the strongest gains in math compared to performance in states across the country. The average increase was just over five percentage points with third-, fourth- and fifth-graders making the most impressive gains (7.5, 8.2 and 7.1, respectively). (WPRI/Channel 12, 8/25/16)

South Dakota:  South Dakota students saw improvements in both math and ELA in grades 3-8. South Dakota Secretary of Education Dr. Melody Schopp stated that: “We gained in nearly every grade and saw growth overall for our Native American students. It takes about 100 students to show a percent increase in proficiency at each grade level, so we are talking about 300 to 600 more students testing proficient in many grade levels, which is significant progress.” (Argus Leader, 06/20/16)

Utah: In the third year of administration of the SAGE test, Utah is still seeing student performance rise among students of all races and ethnicities. “Even though we’re looking at two percent gains, we’re talking several thousands of students more proficient this year than they were last year,” said Rich Nye, deputy superintendent of student achievement. (Deseret News, 8/22/16)

Vermont: Vermont students saw improvements in both math and ELA in grades 3-8 by an average of more than three percentage points. (Vermont Biz, 8/30/16)

Washington: In the second year Smarter Balanced testing, Washington students in grades 3-8 outperformed students from the previous cohorts. Increases were strongest in ELA, with an average increase of more than two percentage points. (Seattle PI, 08/23/16)

West Virginia: Public school students increased their proficiency rates on statewide assessments in nearly every tested grade for 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. (Charleston Gazette-Mail, 8/10/16)

Wyoming: This year Wyoming administered PAWS, and students in grades 3-8 scored higher this year in almost every grade and subject. The largest gains were seen in seventh grade math scores, which increased from 43 percent in 2015 to 49 percent in 2016. (Wyoming Tribune Eagle, 7/15/16)

Click here to see our infographic showing third-grade scores on math from across the country.