State of Student Assessments: Finally, an Honest Baseline

On September 2, 2015, Karen Nussle, Executive Director of the Collaborative for Student Success, issued the following memo on the state of student assessments:

In establishing a new baseline, we cannot put a flag in the ground and declare victory; we’re a long way from that. But what we can say is in this first phase of the mission, we have accomplished what we needed to accomplish: states have adopted higher standards, states have tests that measure those standards and they’re comparable, so there can be an honest baseline… and that is a fantastic success for each state and for America and its children.

– John White, Louisiana Superintendent of Education

The Debate is Changing

Across the country, most states are in the process of releasing results from assessments aligned to higher academic standards that were widely administered for the first time this spring. This milestone marks a new chapter in a time of transformation for American education that includes new standards and other important state and district -based efforts to improve student outcomes. The standards and assessments effectively mark a reset to the baseline of classroom expectations.

With the development and implementation of Common Core State Standards, states collectively set out to ensure college- and career-ready standards are the model for education policy. Now, five years later, the first phase is coming to an end. States have weighed the evidence, seen past the rhetoric, and overwhelmingly embraced high, comparable education standards.

As a result, policymakers and the public alike have shifted their attention to scores from the first round of assessments designed to test to these higher benchmarks. Understandably, some conservatives and liberals remain concerned about the tests. In contrast, pragmatic policymakers from both parties are defending the assessments. They know that states are finally measuring to levels that reflect what students need to know and be able to do to in college or a career.

The Emergence of Comparable, Improved Tests

A majority of states remain committed to using an assessment that is comparable across states (not withstanding one recent misleading media report). This fact alone is a tremendous accomplishment in that it will yield parents, teachers, and administrators a tool to compare their progress across schools, districts, and states.

Currently more than half of states are participating in one of the two testing consortia (18 states in Smarter Balanced; 10 states in PARCC). This is an unprecedented level of comparability in U.S. education.

What’s more, many states have opted to develop their own tests or selected other options that will also measure against the basic math and English standards of the Common Core. As Louisiana Superintendent John White recently said, “We’re going to have an independent test, but that test is going to measure high expectations and it’s going to be comparable to the results in other states. You can achieve this mission as an independent and unaffiliated state.”

These new assessments are much better than older versions. Marc Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League explains that “the quality of today’s assessments has improved greatly from the multiple-choice tests of the past, and these assessments are better indicators of student success and learning because they must be aligned to college- and career-ready standards, and they measure student skills using a variety of methods. With data from these assessments, educators, principals, districts, and states can provide students with the personalized supports and necessary interventions to achieve academic success.”

Interpreting the Early Results

So far about a dozen states have released scores. Somewhat surprisingly, many of the states taking the Smarter Balanced test have exceeded the expectations of their initial field tests, including preliminary results from Idaho and Oregon, and final results from Washington.

Even most Common Core states that use neither of the two new consortia tests have shown some improvements, as happened in New York.

These results are attributable to several factors: an increased focus on the building blocks espoused by Common Core; strong curricula development and innovative classroom instruction happening at the local level; and a growing familiarity with new tests and their features, like adaptive learning, analytical writing requirements, and questions that require students to explain their reasoning.

To be sure, some states are showing mixed – though promising – results. West Virginia students beat projections from the field test in English – and while they didn’t in math, analysis of their 3rd grade results show that students who have known nothing but the Common Core tested higher in both English and math than what was expected based on national estimates.

Establishing a New Baseline

More important than these initial results, most states seem to be preparing for the long haul. These new assessments are part of a broader effort to raise classroom expectations. This year’s tests establish a starting point to measure achievement going forward. It’s important to remember that getting students over a higher bar will be a gradual process achieved over years, not months.

After all, these exams test students against higher standards. As a result, a smaller percentage of students will score proficient or above. The distribution of student scores hasn’t changed; the definition of proficiency has, in order to reflect what students really need to be able to achieve to be on a path of college- and career-readiness. But this is only temporary. States like Kentucky and Tennessee that were early adopters of the Common Core and have been administering their new tests for three years have seen some of the largest improvements in the country.

For parents and educators, that should come as a welcome change. It means they are finally receiving accurate information about how well their kids are really doing. Instead of inflating scores, states are testing to levels that reflect what students need to graduate high school ready for the real world. As the Honesty Gap analysis made clear, that’s a necessary first step to begin improving student performance.

What’s Next

Smarter Balanced states will continue to release test results over the coming weeks, with PARCC states to announce later this fall. And parents will get more information on their individual student’s progress this fall.

Thankfully, many educators and organizations are developing content to help parents understand what the tests mean, including the Learning Heroes Skills Builder and Family Discussion Guide, and the GreatKids State Test Guide for Parents.

Today, the majority of states are on track with higher standards and new tests to measure those standards. States are doing this by shining a light on the policies that created the Honesty Gap and insisting on clear, comparable assessments. Now is the time to stay the course by supporting parents so that they understand what the new score results mean for their students and how they can help them improve; educators, by ensuring they have the tools, resources and professional development to deliver high-quality instruction; and policymakers who have made the difficult political decision to demand high standards and high-quality aligned tests, despite political backlash. Together, these groups have remained committed to that helping our students become college and career ready – and we should join them.