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The Common Core has won – at least on one front.
The standards and the tests designed based on them were, in part, a response to a growing sense that under the No Child Left Behind law – which penalized schools that weren’t making gains on annual state tests – states were making those tests easier so that schools would show progress. Stagnant scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the nation’s report card, were held up as proof that states weren’t being honest about how many of their students were truly on-track.
The Common Core, which is in place in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia, was designed to increase rigor by having teachers focus more on conceptual learning and critical thinking. When former Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced $330 million in funding for two new Common Core tests, he called the tests a game changer.
“For the first time, millions of schoolchildren, parents, and teachers will know if students are on-track for colleges and careers and if they are ready to enter college without the need for remedial instruction,” he said.
This week, two reports paint an entirely new picture using results from last year’s tests, which in many states were the first year of Common Core tests. The scores look a lot more like NAEP than in past years. The two reports – one by Education Next, a scholarly journal published by the conservative Hoover Institution, and another jointly released by Achieve, a nonprofit dedicated to working with states to raise standards, and the Collaborative for Student Success, a nonprofit that supports the Common Core – had similar findings that ding just five states for greatly over-reporting how many students are academically on-track: Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia (the Achieve/CSS report didn’t analyze Nebraska). Of those five states, only Iowa has Common Core on the books.
“States and policymakers are taking this problem seriously and now states are getting more honest and more transparent with students and parents,” said Karen Nussle, executive director of Collaborative for Student Success, during a conference call announcing the results of the study. “The news in some places hasn’t been easy. It’s hard to learn only a third of kids are proficient, but now knowing the truth parents and teachers are doing the hard work of getting kids prepared for success in life.”
While Nussle says that their study wasn’t designed to evaluate the quality of new tests, an analysis by The Hechinger Report shows that there were some clear trends in the report. While 44 states have adopted the Common Core, the testing landscape is far more fractious: 10 states plus the District of Columbia used Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests, 18 states used Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests, two states used the new ACT Aspire tests, 21 states used their own tests and Massachusetts allowed districts to choose between PARCC and their old state tests.
By and large the states with the smallest “honesty gaps,” what the Achieve/CSS study calls the gap between NAEP and state tests, used one of the two federally funded tests, PARCC and Smarter Balanced.
Excluding Ohio, which decided that the top three of PARCC’s five score bands corresponded to proficient as opposed to the two bands PARCC recommended, states using PARCC actually reported lower proficiency rates than on NAEP.
On average, states using PARCC reported proficiency rates 2.3 points below NAEP on the fourth grade reading and eighth grade math tests (the tests the Achieve/CSS report highlights). South Carolina and Alabama, which used ACT’s new Aspire tests, reported proficiency rates 6.25 percentage points above NAEP. Smarter Balanced states came in at 8.6 above. States like Iowa, which used homemade tests, came at 13 points above. And finally states that didn’t adopt Common Core at all came in at 28 points, on average, above NAEP.
Not all states followed this trend. New York, which used its own tests, reported lower proficiency rates than NAEP, and Alaska, which never adopted the Common Core but did release a new test last year, reported rates comparable to the nation’s report card.