New standards contribute to academic improvement in many states, report asserts

November 1, 2016
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The pilot science test will be given to students in 5th and 8th grade, and in high school.

More rigorous standards in math and English language arts have contributed to improved academic achievement for students in many states including in California, a new report asserts.

The analysis looked at improvements in test scores from the 2014-15 school year to the 2015-16 school year. In 2014-15, most states took Common Core-aligned tests for the first time.

“More than 40 states have maintained high standards, and now that we have multiple years of results with high quality assessments, we can see that higher standards are leading to improved outcomes,” said Jim Cowen, executive director of the nonprofit Collaborative for Student Success, which released its report Tuesday.

In California, students took the Smarter Balanced tests, while in other states they took the PARCC and other tests.

Still, the report’s positive conclusions were tempered by noting that despite improvements over the past two years, in most states, including California, less than half of students were meeting standards in both math and English language arts. “There is more work to be done,” Cowen said. “Most kids are not on track and college- and career-ready. But there is upward movement.”

Some expressed caution about basing any firm conclusions based on just two years of test results. When asked about this, New Mexico’s Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera said there is often “a bump” in test scores from the first to second year based on student engagement and familiarity with the tests. Some testing experts also attribute such an increase at least in part to students becoming more familiar with the computer technology to take the test. 

The collaborative, funded by regional and national educational foundations, provides grants to state and local educational agencies to support Common Core standards implementation and testing.

The group compared the results of 2015-16 tests aligned to the Common Core standards to those from 2014-15 in more than 30 states, including the Smarter Balanced assessments administered in California. It found that proficiency rates improved from the previous year in most states, narrowing the gap between state test scores and those reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who helped lead a coalition that created the Common Core standards more than six years ago, said during a news teleconference that he sees a pattern among states that have adopted higher standards. The common standards list goals for math and English language arts that K-12 students are expected to be able to meet by the end of each grade level.

“By setting high expectations, being honest in the way we measure progress, and supporting teachers through resources and professional development,Markell said, states are making steady but meaningful gains toward achieving our most important goal: preparing all students to graduate ready for their next steps, in college or the workplace.”

Test results were especially promising among 3rd-grade math students, whose scores increased by 6 percentage points in California and by more than 3 percentage points on average throughout the country. In many states, these students have been taught according to higher standards throughout their entire academic careers.

California and many other states adopted the Common Core standards in 2010.

Overall in 2015-16, 49 percent of California students in grades 3-8 and 11 met standards in English language arts and 37 percent met them in math, jumping 5 and 4 percentage points respectively from the previous year.

In 2014-15, California 4th-graders scored 11 percentage points higher on the Smarter Balanced tests than on the NAEP tests in reading, while the state’s 8th-graders scored 6 percentage points higher in math.  

The collaborative considers California to be one of 26 states whose tests were more “honest” in assessing student performance. These were states where students’ scores were less than 15 percentage points higher than the NAEP results. These results suggest that in California the Common Core-aligned tests are more rigorous than the previous tests the state administered because in earlier tests the gap between students’ scores and their scores on the NAEP were even higher.

NAEP tests results, which are also referred to as “The Nation’s Report Card,” are released every other year in math and English language arts, so no comparison is available for 2015-16.

Michael Kirst, president of the state Board of Education, said in an email that he agrees that the Smarter Balanced tests are more aligned with NAEP tests than the state’s previous standardized assessments.

Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization based in Oakland, said he also agrees with the report’s conclusions that the impact of more rigorous standards like the Common Core have been “really positive.”

“These standards are so much better,” he said in a phone interview. “They measure things that actually matter as opposed to multiple choice. But the test results are actually showing more of an achievement gap, which is really troubling. So while scores are improving, the higher standards are still showing serious disparities.”


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