New Tests Put States on Hot Seat as Scores Plunge

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 05, 2012 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As states begin to demand more rigor on their high-stakes tests—and the tests evolve to incorporate revised academic standards—many officials are gambling that an initial wave of lower scores will give way to greater student achievement in the future.

Changes to statewide tests and subsequent plummeting scores sparked controversy and emergency action in Florida last month, and similar shock waves have been felt as Kentucky, Michigan, Texas, and Virginia remake their testing regimes.

The increasing expectations are in many cases a preview of challenges expected nationally when new, rigorous assessments based on the Common Core State Standards are administered by nearly all states starting in 2014-15. To date, 46 states have agreed to adopt the common-core standards in English/language arts and 45 in math, and two consortia with various member states are spending $360 million in federal money to develop common assessments for the new standards.

States have long endured criticism that their existing tests, aimed at moving the states toward 2014 proficiency levels in reading and mathematics demanded by the No Child Left Behind Act, lacked the rigor necessary to gauge how well students stack up against the demands of college and workforce readiness.

For many states implementing a new generation of tests, there will be a “shock” as test scores drop, a dynamic that typically occurs with each evolution of such assessments, said Kathy Christie, a vice president at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

“I would anticipate that the performance is going to be poor, if indeed you have a state where they’re making a pretty big shift in expectations. ... The failure numbers are big right off” and start to recover, she said. “That’s what I would expect here.”

Florida Collision

The conflict between tougher standards on high-stakes exams and the challenge officials face in responding to lower test scores is still playing out in Florida.

In May, the state imposed a tougher scoring method on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, writing exam for such items as grammar and punctuation. That led to sharp drops in passing rates.

Setting the Bar

States are feeling the heat after adjusting the way student performance is judged on their high-stakes tests, causing student scores to plunge in some cases. Changes come as states gird for assessments based on the Common Core State Standards in 2014-15.

Scores on the state’s FCAT writing tests at various grade levels plunged dramatically this year after the scoring scale’s difficulty was increased by giving grammar and punctuation more weight. In response to the drop and public concern, the state board of education lowered the passing score.

The first state to officially adopt the common core, Kentucky has new assessments this year in both grades 3-8 and in high school. The high school tests are designed to count 20 percent toward a student’s final grades in their respective subject areas.

In 2011, the state set new cutoff scores for both its Michigan Education Assessment Program (for grades 3-9) and Michigan Merit Exam for high schools based on revised standards that include the ACT college-entrance exam. The Merit Exam is designed to show that a student achieving that score or better should receive a B or higher in that subject’s entry-level college course.

After four years of work, new performance standards for 15 end-of-course exams on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness went into effect this year. The passing standards will increase over the next four years, and more than 1,000 school districts have delayed some requirements for a year.

In both 2011 and 2012, the state superintendent warned lawmakers that scores on the revised Standards of Learning tests likely would drop as a result of their increased difficulty; passing rates for high school students dropped by 27 percentage points in the fall 2011 administration of the new math tests.

SOURCES: Education Week; Associated Press

Those writing-test decreases, including a plunge to 27 percent proficiency among 4th graders, from 81 percent last year—so alarmed state school officials and the public that the state school board lowered the cutoff score retroactively, which buffered the impact on schools’ ratings. It did so even though board members already had expected a drop in passing rates.

Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson admitted in comments after the results that officials, in changing the FCAT grading system, “did not give enough attention to communicating these basic expectations to our teachers” on what the tests would demand.

But state officials also noted that they are well aware that the new, common-core-based assessments are on the way and are trying to prepare for them. States that use common-core assessments won’t be able to change the cutoff scores as Florida did with its FCAT.

Kentucky Braced

But in general, focusing on the scores from such newly revised tests misses the point, said Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday. States are reorienting their tests to measure college and career readiness instead of proficiency, he noted. In effect, they are “measuring something different,” Mr. Holliday said.

The first state to adopt the common-core standards, Kentucky used a new set of assessments for the 2011-12 school year called K-PREP for grades 3-8. Students are also taking new end-of-course tests in high school. In addition, Kentucky now requires all 11th graders to take the ACT college-admissions exam.

Scores on the exams will drop, Mr. Holliday predicted, because students taking K-PREP now have to deal with longer, nonfiction reading passages, for example, and exhibit greater “technical fluency” in their comprehension skills. But Kentucky officials feel that the state tests match what the common core will demand since the state worked in developing K-PREP with Pearson, the New York City-based education and testing company, which is also developing curriculum for the common core.

“I think we’ve progressed greatly. ... From what I’ve seen in the sample items [from K-PREP] and what I’ve heard from teachers and students after these assessments, these are pretty tough,” he said.

Many Southern states, in particular, have moved in the past decade to match their standards with those more closely aligned with the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card.”

That move has helped states aiming to prepare for the common assessments, said Jeff Gagne, the director of education policies at the Southern Regional Education Board, which has 16 member states. Twelve member states, for example, now have high-stakes tests students must pass to graduate, he said.

“The idea of what’s [to be] ... assessed won’t be radically different from what’s being assessed right now in our states,” he said.

Michigan Gears Up

The Michigan Merit Exam for high school students (in addition to incorporating the ACT, like Kentucky) has been redesigned this year to show that students who score at or above the “proficient” level on a subject should be able to get at least a B on the freshman-level college exam in that subject at a public university in Michigan.

Cutoff scores for proficiency on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, or MEAP, given in grades 3-9 each fall, also increased significantly this school year. Students needed to get 65 percent of answers correct to pass, instead of the previous standard of 39 percent.

Based on that new cutoff—not because of a change in the test itself—math proficiency rates statewide on MEAP in all grades dropped by roughly 35 percentage points from 2010 to 2011, when the new standards went into effect, said Joseph Martineau, the director of the office of educational assessment and accountability at the Michigan education department.

In terms of common-core readiness, “We feel like we are a little bit ahead of the game, and that will serve us well when we’re going into this situation, when we’re taking this test that is more rigorous,” Mr. Martineau said.

To help the public understand the impact of the new cutoff scores, the department last November released information illustrating how much MEAP scores in each of the past four years would have dropped if the new standards and scoring had applied retroactively. For example, applying the new cutoff-scores to 2010 results, only 35 percent of 3rd graders would have scored proficient, instead of the 95 percent deemed so currently.

Trouble in Texas

Even in Texas, which is among just four states that have not adopted the common-core standards, rising rigor on statewide tests has led to worries from local school officials and to demands for change.

In the 2011-12 school year, high school freshmen took new end-of-course assessments in four subject areas, called the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR. A student must pass a total of 15 tests in four subject areas (math, science, social studies, and English) in order to graduate, and the cutoff scores for proficiency will increase by about 14 percent in increments from 2012 to 2016.

But according to Austin-based Save Texas Schools, which champions education funding and limiting high-stakes standardized testing, more than 425 schools this year have adopted a resolution calling on the state legislature to re-examine STAAR’s impact on classrooms.

“Essentially, the teachers are working on preparing kids without really knowing what’s going to be assessed. ... I think there’s been anxiety on the part of kids because of the increased rigor,” said Ken Baliker, the president of the board of trustees of the 39,000-student Clear Creek Independent School District, the first district in Texas to adopt the resolution.

Fairness Issue Raised

Casey McCreary, the assistant executive director for education policy at the Texas Association of School Administrators, said it’s unfair to simultaneously roll out new tests and load more pressure onto the tests by linking them to graduation and grades.


“It’s going to be a disincentive for students that are struggling. ... Once parents understand how complicated it is for their child to graduate from high school, the backlash is only going to widen and get stronger,” she said.

But there’s also public sentiment for the view that new testing standards, like those on the FCAT this year, were overdue.

“Some of the things we’ve heard is people saying, ‘So, spelling, grammar, and punctuation weren’t [already] a part of the scores?’ and more surprised at that,” said Jaryn Emhof, a spokeswoman for the Tallahassee, Fla.-based Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2012 edition of Education Week as New Tests Put States on Spot


Mathematics Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Breaking the Cycle: How Districts are Turning around Dismal Math Scores
Math myth: Students just aren't good at it? Join us & learn how districts are boosting math scores.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
How To Tackle The Biggest Hurdles To Effective Tutoring
Learn how districts overcome the three biggest challenges to implementing high-impact tutoring with fidelity: time, talent, and funding.
Content provided by Saga Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Reframing Behavior: Neuroscience-Based Practices for Positive Support
Reframing Behavior helps teachers see the “why” of behavior through a neuroscience lens and provides practices that fit into a school day.
Content provided by Crisis Prevention Institute

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Standards Florida's New African American History Standards: What's Behind the Backlash
The state's new standards drew national criticism and leave teachers with questions.
9 min read
Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference at the Celebrate Freedom Foundation Hangar in West Columbia, S.C. July 18, 2023. For DeSantis, Tuesday was supposed to mark a major moment to help reset his stagnant Republican presidential campaign. But yet again, the moment was overshadowed by Donald Trump. The former president was the overwhelming focus for much of the day as DeSantis spoke out at a press conference and sat for a highly anticipated interview designed to reassure anxious donors and primary voters that he's still well-positioned to defeat Trump.
Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference in West Columbia, S.C., on July 18, 2023. Florida officials approved new African American history standards that drew national backlash, and which DeSantis defended.
Sean Rayford/AP
Standards Here’s What’s in Florida’s New African American History Standards
Standards were expanded in the younger grades, but critics question the framing of many of the new standards.
1 min read
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the historic Ritz Theatre in downtown Jacksonville, Fla., on July 21, 2023. Harris spoke out against the new standards adopted by the Florida State Board of Education in the teaching of Black history.
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the historic Ritz Theatre in downtown Jacksonville, Fla., on July 21, 2023. Harris spoke out against the new standards adopted by the Florida state board of education in the teaching of Black history.
Fran Ruchalski/The Florida Times-Union via AP
Standards Opinion How One State Found Common Ground to Produce New History Standards
A veteran board member discusses how the state school board pushed past partisanship to offer a richer, more inclusive history for students.
10 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Standards The Architects of the Standards Movement Say They Missed a Big Piece
Decisions about materials and methods can lead to big variances in the quality of instruction that children receive.
4 min read
Image of stairs on a blueprint, with a red flag at the top of the stairs.
Feodora Chiosea/iStock/Getty