Common Core

Stakes for “high-stakes” tests are actually pretty low

Despite all the controversy, few students or teachers will be much affected by the result of this spring’s Common Core-aligned tests.

It turns out that the stakes for this spring’s Common Core-aligned tests are not quite as high as they might seem.

The Hechinger Report surveyed the District of Columbia and all 44 states* that have adopted the Common Core and will be administering a Common Core-aligned test this spring to find out how they plan to use test scores. We found that very few states will be using this spring’s scores for any student-related decisions. And the stakes for teachers are only slightly higher.

Related: What this spring’s Common Core tests promised and what they will actually deliver

“I think the stakes are either overstated or understated depending on which side of the argument you’re on,” said Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “Both sides need to take a step back and just take a look at this map.”

Minnich inspired us to create the map when he urged reporters at an Education Writers Association conference on the Common Core to find out exactly how much the results of this spring’s exams will affect students and teachers.

The answer? Not so much.

Three states will use the test scores as some portion of a graduation requirement. Ohio has developed its own Common Core-aligned test that all students must pass as either juniors or seniors. Florida is requiring sophomores to successfully pass an aligned English test and an Algebra I test. And Washington State is allowing juniors to use their scores on the test developed by testing consortium Smarter Balanced to show proficiency, but students can also use scores from the state’s old exam or from end-of-course tests in certain subjects. Related: Common Core tests will widen the achievement gap at first Thirty-five states have no exit exam at all and seven have exit exams of some other kind – end-of-course tests, New York’s Regents tests, California’s CAHSEE, a civics exam, etc. – but will not be using a sole test score to allow seniors to graduate or not. Nine states are considering using scores on standardized Common Core-aligned tests in the future, but plans vary greatly as to how much weight scores will receive.

Only three states will be using this spring’s Common Core-aligned test to regulate grade promotion: Florida, Mississippi and Wisconsin. Of those, only Mississippi is using a single test score in isolation, though even then it’s not one of the much-discussed new standardized tests developed for Common Core. Mississippi will use students’ reading scores on a state-developed reading test (MKAS) to determine whether or not they will go on to 4th grade.

For teachers, it’s a slightly different story. Thirty-four states plan to use test scores for some portion of teacher evaluations either this year or in the future. Still, only 13 states will use this spring’s scores in some way and most of those will use the scores as a baseline for student growth between this year and next.

Of the 21 states that plan to use the tests as part of teacher evaluations in the future, many have already specified that the score will count for only a percentage of the evaluation. For example, Wyoming plans to use test scores as 20 percent of teacher evaluations starting in 2020.

Related: Will test-based teacher evaluations derail Common Core?

Minnich, who describes himself as part of the “moderate middle” on testing and Common Core, said that the important message for students was that while the tests are important for adults to know how a class is doing, there’s no need to stress about the results. He admitted that the task of finding the right balance in delivering that message is not easy.

As for teachers, Minnich hopes that they can continue to be part of an ongoing conversation about the best way to use measures of student learning in evaluations. He said his members – the country’s state superintendents – were more or in agreement on the benefit of using scores as one of several teacher performance measures.

All of which is to say, yes, the tests are important. Decisions will be made based on how students perform on them. But the vast majority of states will use the scores only as one measure in a web of other factors when making staffing decisions. And most states have no plans to use the scores to make student advancement decisions.

*We included Pennsylvania, which adopted the Common Core in 2010 but has since made modifications to those standards, in our survey.

UPDATE: These maps have received a lot of attention and we’d like to clarify a few details in answer to repeated questions we’ve received.

The maps below depict the reality only for decisions that will (or will not) be made using this spring’s test scores. In several cases there is a complex answer to that question. We have included additional information about some states in the notes when needed.

Also, we acknowledge that every state has many individual variations on how and how much it is considering test scores. Everything from local politics to the strength of statewide unions to parent engagement inform the strength and direction of the discussions happening in each state. In many cases, local districts also have the ability to set their own policies, which may include higher stakes than mandated by the state. As a result, most policies are confusing and evolving. To keep our maps accurate, we kept our questions very narrow and only included current statewide policy, not local district policy.

Finally, we also did not attempt to capture the stakes schools may or may not face based on federal regulations. We stuck to the stakes for teachers and students as mandated by states.

Thank you, as always, for reading, and for your continued feedback.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about the Common Core.

Clarification: New York’s designation on the map of stakes for student graduation has been changed to reflect nuances in its testing policy. The state will issue both old and new Common Core tests this spring and for some students, the new tests will be used in graduation decisions.

Correction: The teacher evaluation map has been corrected to show that New Mexico will use last year’s test results in evaluations this year and this spring’s results in evaluations next year. 

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Lillian Mongeau

Lillian Mongeau is the Engagement Editor, West Coast Correspondent and Early Childhood Reporter. Her future as a writer was not a forgone conclusion, according to… See Archive

Emmanuel Felton

Emmanuel Felton is a staff writer. Prior to joining The Hechinger Report, he covered education, juvenile justice and child services for the New York World.… See Archive

Sarah Butrymowicz

Sarah Butrymowicz is data editor. Prior to falling in love with spreadsheets and statistics, she spent four years as a staff writer for The Hechinger… See Archive