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An unprecedented drop in scores on a tough and highly regarded test known as the Nation’s Report Card could create more trouble for the controversial standards known as Common Core, a set of English and math guidelines on the books in 44 states and the District of Columbia.
Both math and reading scores declined for first time since the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) took its current form in 1998, according to data released by the National Assessment Governing Board on Wednesday, and Common Core watchers say the many critics of the standards could use the dip as ammunition in their war against the Common Core.
Experts contend that a year’s worth of NAEP scores aren’t enough evidence to condemn the new standards. Both Common Core and non-Common Core states saw declines from 2013 NAEP scores and some commentators point to other possible culprits for the falling scores, namely increasing poverty and changing demographics.
But Morgan Polikoff – an assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s education school – predicts that the damage has been done to the Common Core brand.
“It shouldn’t really mean anything to the debate since there is no evidence that Common Core is the cause of these declining scores,” said Polikoff. “But certainly people are going to use these scores as proof that it’s not working, and in the end, perception is just as important as reality.”
During a conference call for reporters to discuss the scores, U. S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that an “implementation dip” might be at play. Scores on standardized tests generally decrease when teachers struggle to implement new curriculum tied to new standards and then rebound when teachers get used to the new material.
NAEP math and reading tests are given every other year to a representative sample of fourth and eighth graders. Nationwide, scores were down on three of the four tests. Students scored lower on the fourth-grade reading tests and on both math tests. Similarly many states also saw declines. On the eighth-grade math test, scores decreased in 22 states compared to 2013, the last time the test was given. On the eighth-grade reading exam, scores declined in eight states but were up in one state, West Virginia, where legislators have been vigorously debating whether they should stick with the Common Core.
NAEP scores from the four states that never adopted the Common Core – Virginia, Nebraska, Alaska and Texas – were mostly in line with the national downward trend. While Nebraska saw an increase in fourth-grade reading scores, both Minnesota, which adopted the English Common Core standards but not the math standards, and Texas saw drops in math scores. On the eighth-grade math test, Pennsylvania saw the biggest drop at six points, but Texas wasn’t far behind with a four-point decrease.
In the call with the media, Duncan acknowledged that this was “obviously not great news,” but suggested that before states back away from their new standards, policymakers should look to Massachusetts’s experience transitioning to new standards in the 1990s. (Duncan never used the phrase Common Core during the call.)
“The Massachusetts miracle was anything but a miracle, it was a two decades-long process,” said Duncan, noting that the state initially saw some test score decreases after implementing what were widely viewed as the highest standards in the country at the time. “My simple message is to stay strong, progress will never be quick or linear.”
While Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor at Drew University, says that the decline in scores does indeed present an opportunity for Common Core foes, he also believes Common Core supporters could use the results to argue that higher standards are needed more than ever.
“I think it’s not necessarily bad news,” said McGuinn. “It might be helpful. NAEP is widely viewed as the most credible assessment of knowledge and skills, so to the degree those scores are going down, some may say the Common Core and higher standards in general are necessary and for that matter that more rigorous state tests like NAEP are also necessary.”
But Polikoff sees the results as a clear political win for Common Core detractors hoping to get their states to throw out the standards and the new tests aligned to them.
“It’s going to be a really tough political argument in the states that saw the biggest drops,” said Polikoff. “And in some sense it makes sense. Since 1990 the scores have been on a continuous trend upward, so for scores to decline is obviously notable. I just hope that policymakers won’t overreact.”