Common-Core Backers Hit States’ High Proficiency Rates

By Catherine Gewertz — May 14, 2015 3 min read
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It’s been five years since states began adopting the common core. But many faces have changed since then in the big chairs occupied by the governors, state commissioners, and state board members who gave it the green light. That’s why two Washington-based groups think it’s time for a refresher course.

The name of the course could be “Why State Test Results Don’t Tell the Real Story,” or even, “State Tests Lie.” Common-core backers have been trying to get this message across for years, using the proficiency gaps between NAEP and states’ own test scores as Exhibit A.

On Thursday, they released a report showing how most states produce much higher proficiency rates on their own tests than they do on NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as “the nation’s report card.” The report was issued by Achieve, which had a central role in organizing the initiative to write the common core, and the Collaborative for Student Success, a foundation-funded group that works to expand support for the standards.

The report separates states into categories according to the size of their gaps: “truth-tellers,” which have tests that produce proficiency rates closer to NAEP, and “biggest gaps,” which... well, speaks for itself. More than half the states have proficiency gaps of 30 points or more, according to the report.

States are “not leveling with students or parents” because they’re representing that “students are proficient when by external benchmarks they’re not,” Achieve President Michael Cohen told reporters in a conference call.

Here is an example of what Achieve and the Collaborative call “the honesty gap.” In 4th grade reading, you can see that Georgia has the biggest gap: a 60-point differential between the proficiency rates its own tests reported in 2013-14, and those on the 2013 NAEP. New York has the narrowest differential, with only a 5-point gap.

A glance at NAEP’s own comparison from 2007 shows a number of significant changes since then. New York, singled out in Achieve’s report as a “truth-teller” for its 5-point gap, had a 32-point gap in 2007 between the percentage of students meeting its own standard in 4th grade reading and the percentage meeting NAEP proficiency cutoffs in that subject. Alabama’s 56-point gap in 4th grade reading in 2007 dropped to 7 points by 2013-14. Some states produced mixed results. Texas, for instance, had a 37-point gap in 8th grade math in 2007, and it grew to a 48-point gap by 2013-14. But it reduced its gap in 4th grade reading from 53 points to 46 points during that period.

The states that are working to align their proficiency standards with NAEP have “the political courage” to rework their standards and tests to ensure that students are expected to master material that truly prepares them for college and good jobs, Karen Nussle, the executive director of the Collaborative, said during the conference call.

Many states are raising their sights, she said, and now is not the time for them to become “politically weak kneed” or be “bullied into turning back.”

There have been many reports, for years now, about states’ wildly varying proficiency rates, how they set the bar low on their testslower than NAEP “basic” levels, in most cases—and that they did so, in many cases, to escape sanctions for low achievement that were written into the No Child Left Behind Act. So although the comparisons in today’s report use updated test proficiency rates, they revisit well-trod turf.

But timing is everything. And with so many new governors, state commissioners, board of education members, and state lawmakers—all of whom could undermine the standards or their accompanying tests—common-core backers appear to be trying to persuade them that the better part of “political courage” is keeping standards, and cut scores, high.

Education Week librarian Holly Peele contributed to this report.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.