Common Core: How Much is it Damaging Test Scores?

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 09, 2013 3 min read
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One of the biggest K-12 stories this week has been the drop in test scores in New York state, with proficiency rates plunging by about 40 to 50 percent on the English/language arts and math tests from their 2012 previous levels. But New York isn’t the only state dealing with dips in performance, as two other states, California and Wyoming, announced this week. Both those states attributed at least part of their less-severe declines to the Common Core State Standards. But unlike in the Empire State, where officials such as Commissioner of Education John King attributed virtually the entire plunge to the common core but claimed it was ultimately good for the state long-term, it’s not quite clear that the new standards have played quite the same kind of role elsewhere, particularly in California.

For the first time in several years, California students’ performance declined on their state assessments, the Standardized Testing and Reporting exams (or STAR) in English/language arts and math this year, although the drops were significantly less dramatic than in New York. The Sacramento Bee has the numbers: Statewide, 51.2 percent of students in grades 2-11 tested in math were proficient, off very slightly from 51.5 percent last year, while in English, the proficiency rate dipped from 57.2 to 56.4. Math test scores had previously increased for five straight years, while English scores had climbed for the last eight years.

What’s the cause for the small drops? California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in an Aug. 8 statement that the lower scores come at a time of “ongoing budget reductions and the transition to the Common Core State Standards.” However, Torlakson also says in the statement that this is likely the last year of the state’s STAR exams, as California gets ready to field-test new assessments explicitly aligned to the common core from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. So there’s been no introduction so far of dramatically different exams in California, unlike in the Empire State.

Remember, California has been dealing with budget woes for several years. In essence, Torlakson seems to be arguing that the introduction of the standards themselves to teachers is part of the explanation. That’s a very different environment than the one in New York, where the old tests were scrapped and new, common-core aligned exams from Pearson were brought in this year. Common core supporters might argue that teaching to higher standards and then giving the older, No Child Left Behind Act-era assessments could actually lead to higher scores. But California’s top K-12 official is saying the fact that teachers now have to deal with the standards is contributing to lower performance, even though the old assessment remains.

Now let’s go from the largest state by population to the smallest, Wyoming, where officials released scores from the Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming Students (PAWS). Performance declined in each grade level and content area this year from the 2012 scores, with the biggest drop of 6.5 percentage points in 5th grade reading. Once again, new state Education Director Rich Crandall attributes these scores to the common core: “Questions on the 2013 PAWS are also more closely aligned with the Common Core State Standards.” He also said that next year, PAWS will include “mostly” new questions, and that “all items” will address the common core.

So in Wyoming, the tests themselves and their new alignment closer to the common core could be seen as more directly involved than in California. Still, you’ll notice that the proficiency drops in Wyoming aren’t nearly as dramatic as the ones in New York. If Wyoming’s experience is anything like New York’s, however, the significantly different assessments in 2014 could lead to New York-like proficiency drops.

Remember, however, that some aren’t buying the argument that the new test scores, like the kind students put up in New York, represent a new era of tough truth-telling for public schools and a long-term benefit for states. For example, the United Federation of Teachers, the teachers’ union in New York City, was angered that what it calls bungled decisions by top officials around curriculum and the new standards made students, teachers, and schools look bad.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.