Five years ago, Kentucky became the first state in the country to start implementing the Common Core State Standards in classrooms and measuring whether students are reaching those standards. While Kentucky has not yet released its most recent test scores, more than half of the states across the country have done so. What the scores tell us is clear: states have raised expectations and have put in place better tests, and students are showing real progress.
What’s more, the changes that states have made to improve their testing practices and to reduce pressure typically stemming from these tests have slowed down the movement to opt out of testing.
Since the 2015-2016 school year marked the second year of new tests aligned with the Common Core, policymakers and advocates can finally start to compare test scores over time and see how student achievement has changed under the standards. As it turns out, achievement is up in nearly every state that has released scores.
In fact, in 27 of the 28 states that have released scores from this spring and where the data are comparable to last year, student performance is up — and some of the biggest increases are for third-grade students, who have learned to higher standards for their whole time in school.
Take California, for example, where statewide English language arts proficiency is up 5 percentage points from last year, and math is up by 4 percentage points. Or New York, where overall English language arts scores increased by nearly 7 percentage points between 2015 and 2016 — with scores for third- and fourth- graders increasing by 11 and 8 points, respectively. Math scores in New York increased as well.
Or South Dakota, where students in every grade but 11th improved in both English language arts and math by between 2 and 7 percentage points.
At the same time these states are making improvements in teaching and learning and helping students reach higher standards, they’re also making improvements in testing to reduce pressure on tests, shorten testing time and make sure that tests have value for students and parents. As a result, more students are taking the tests and fewer are opting out.
In New Jersey — which shortened its tests by 90 minutes and made other changes to reduce time spent testing — 56,000 more students took the English language arts test and 65,000 more students took the math test this year compared to last year. And in Washington state, where half of 11th-graders opted out of state tests in 2015, nearly 90 percent participated in the English language arts test and more than 60 percent participated in the math test this year.
Of course, 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.
It’s time for these critics to accept that under the standards, students are making progress.
To be sure, these results aren’t a slam dunk, and no one who supports higher standards and better tests should declare victory. One year of increases isn’t yet a trend, and it’s too early to say whether these gains will continue. What’s more, achievement across the country is still far too low, especially for students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities and English language learners.
Over the next year and beyond, states and districts need to make sure that teachers have the support and resources they need to help students continue to make progress and meet these higher standards.
But there’s no denying that this progress is real. And it’s a testament to the hard work of educators, parents, and state and local leaders who have continued to push forward and make adjustments where needed. Most of all, it’s a testament to our students, who are showing once again that they will rise to meet whatever expectations we set for them. That’s why we need to make sure that the expectation for every child is to graduate from high school ready for college and a career.
Scott Sargrad is the managing director for K-12 Education Policy at the Center for American Progress. Coleton Whitaker, education campaign associate at CAP, contributed research for this article.