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Student Test Scores Are on the Rise. Does That Mean Common Core Is Working?

By Naomi Nix | December 18, 2016

Just six years ago, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell became one of the leading voices behind the Common Core State Standards, a new set of academic benchmarks designed to make teaching more rigorous and consistent in schools across the country. He was co-chair of the National Governors Association’s Common Core State Standards Initiative when the group developed and released those standards to the public.
Hardly two years went by before Markell and the standards were on the defensive. Facing an onslaught of criticism, he wrote op-eds, delivered talking points to reporters and even vetoed anti-testing bills, all to support the idea that the country needed a more rigorous yardstick with which to measure students’ academic progress.
Then, on November 1, the governor found a new weapon in the battle to preserve the Common Core: a fresh batch of positive results from Common Core–aligned annual assessments in dozens of states.
“The trend in our state and across the country is clear: Higher standards are translating into meaningful and measurable progress for our students,” he said during a press briefing hosted by education nonprofit The Collaborative for Student Success. “As we enter a new era in education policy, obviously ushered in by the new federal law, our focus should not be on starting from scratch but rather on building on the hard work of students and educators that has taken place over the last few years.”
Markell’s pitch that states shouldn’t change course on the Common Core has taken on a new sense of urgency in the age of the Every Student Succeeds Act, when states have more wiggle room in determining how to assess and hold schools accountable for student performance — and President-elect Donald Trump has dismissed the Common Core as “a disaster” that must be done away with.
(WATCH: New Common Core Video Series Shows How Kids Today Learn Math a Better Way)
For the first time, many states now have two years’ worth of data from Common Core–aligned tests such as PARCC and Smarter Balanced — and the results have already prompted some supporters to point to rising test scores as evidence the standards are working.
But research paints a more nuanced picture, and experts say there are limits to what can be said about the impact of the standards after just a few years.
(The 74 Flashcards: Understanding the Common Core: What It Is, What It Isn’t)
“I would put very little to zero emphasis on year-to-year changes in state test scores for this particular purpose," said Morgan Polikoff, an education professor at the University of Southern California.
The Collaborative for Student Success, which supports the Common Core, put out an analysis earlier this month of the 2015–16 state assessments for grades 3–8 that have been released so far. Of the 34 states that have adopted the Common Core and released their test results, 29 of them, along with Washington, D.C., saw increases in English Language Arts scores. Thirty states and Washington saw math scores rise.
“What we have seen is marked improvements nearly across the board,” New Mexico Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera said during the press briefing. “In 19 of 21 areas that we measured, New Mexico is up, which is unprecedented, and we believe that is a result of establishing a higher bar and our teachers and our students responding to that.”
Experts from the Center for American Progress put out a similar analysis in September. They found that at least 27 of the 28 states that have released scores and have comparable data from the year before showed a positive trajectory in student performance.
“Critics of the Common Core will continue to push states to get rid of the standards. But their push has less and less credibility as scores go up and students see more and more success. And it’s probably not a coincidence that the one state so far where scores have gone down — Indiana — is a state that dropped Common Core and has since changed its standards and tests multiple times,” Scott Sargrad and Coleton Whitaker recently wrote in a blog post about the results.
“It’s time for these critics to accept that under the standards, students are making progress.”
Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who backed away from the Common Core when he was a presidential candidate, pointed to rising test scores to say the state was right to choose the controversial Common Core–aligned PARCC exam, after all.
“New Jersey’s educational system is one of the best in the nation, and we are committed to keep pushing for improvements that will continue student success,” he said. “We pursued the higher-quality assessment because we knew our students were well-positioned to meet the challenge, and these results further validate that approach.”
But are this year’s test results really a cause for celebration?
“We need to have a little more patience until we can get some other data to do these analyses,” Polikoff said. “I think it’s a little short-sighted. …You just set yourself up for, when the data don’t look great, for people to torpedo the policies.”
In fact, the research on Common Core’s impact on student achievement is hardly a slam dunk. A report released last year by the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research found that Kentucky students made large gains in “college and career readiness” as determined by the ACT in the years right before and after the state transitioned to Common Core.
Another report, released by the Brookings Institution earlier this year, found that implementation of Common Core State Standards has resulted in not more than a single point in either direction on fourth-graders’ reading scores and eighth-graders’ math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress over a period of six years.
Additionally, education policy researchers have long documented a pattern that when states introduce a new test, there is a large drop in scores compared with national norms, followed by sharp gains in subsequent years.
“People used to call it the saw-tooth pattern,” said Daniel Koretz, a professor of education at Harvard University. He said that if student test scores rise at a modest rate, they are more likely to reflect actual learning gains, but if there is a rapid increase, it can indicate that the scores have been artificially inflated.
Generally speaking, he said, test scores can become inflated in a number of ways. Some research suggests that when high stakes are attached to a student assessment, teachers tailor their instruction to emphasize concepts or types of questions most likely to appear on the exam.
Educators can also coach students by teaching test-taking tricks — the style of essay that works well on the exam, or even specific phrases or structures that are likely to appear on the assessment. For instance, a child might memorize the format of a linear equation as y=mx+b but not truly understand that the m means slope and could be represented by any letter in the alphabet.
“They just don’t learn anything. In many cases, it’s as simple as that,” Koretz said.
Sargrad, of the Center for American Progress, acknowledged that other factors may be influencing the rise in the Common Core test scores, but he noted that the earliest grades are showing the largest gains — evidence, he said, that it is likely the standards themselves that are having an effect.
“The students who are in the third grade have basically had their entire K-12 career under Common Core,” he said. “Those are the students who are showing the strongest improvements.”
Skandera, the New Mexico secretary of education, who is also chair of PARCC’s board, said she is confident that her state will continue to equip teachers with the right tools to improve student learning.
“I think the one thing that remains consistent is our teachers and our students want to do well and continue to look for ways to improve and learn from what their strengths and their weaknesses are, and I anticipate that going forward,” she said.
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