What Do Kentucky Test Results Foreshadow for the Common Core?

By Catherine Gewertz — November 05, 2012 2 min read
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If you haven’t been napping for the last couple of years, you’re well aware that lots of people are nervous about putting the common standards into practice in schools, and how they’ll be reflected in test-score performance.

There are a couple of levels to the testing part of the question, of course. One is how will students fare on their own states’ tests, which might—or might not—have been tweaked to reflect the common core? Another is how will students do a little further down the road—in 2014-15—on the common assessments being designed by two groups of states for the new standards?

We’ve now got our first piece of evidence to help answer the first question. Kentucky unveiled its test results last Friday, and they weren’t pretty. Take a look at my colleague Andrew Ujifusa’s story, and at his blog post, for the lowdown.

Why are Kentucky’s test results worth looking at? Because it is the first state whose test results reflect the new standards. The state jumped into instructional implementation far sooner than most, and in a more comprehensive way. But it also developed new tests to reflect those standards, while most other states are using the ones they’ve got, or slightly revising them. So it’s possible—not a guarantee, but possible—that Kentucky’s experience tells us quite a bit about what other states might experience as they move toward testing the common core.

Kentucky’s experience is a mixed one, because at the same time that it put new tests in place, it also changed its accountability system, courtesy of a federal waiver from No Child Left Behind. So while there are new results from long-standing tests (the ACT college-entrance examination, for instance), there are many new elements as well (results from ACT end-of-course tests in high school, a brand-new system of tests in grades 3-8).

Those grade 3-8 results, though, probably offer the clearest view of what other states can anticipate when they administer tests that align well with the common standards. There, the percent of students scoring proficient dropped by about one third, as Andrew reports.

That wasn’t quite as bad as Kentucky had predicted, but it was certainly enough to warrant the public-relations push it spent months developing. State officials took pains to explain that this is what happens when tougher standards and tougher tests hold our children to higher expectations. Kentucky’s hardly the only state using—or planning to use—this approach. As Andrew reported not long ago, many states are readying themselves for similar communications challenges as their test scores show similar drops in the coming months.

On the other hand, a pot of test results that Kentucky considers indicators of career- and college-readiness showed improvements. That includes results from a range of things, from the ASVAB aptitude test used for entrance into the military, to the ACT college-entrance exam. State officials saw these results as a thumbs-up for their work to bring more challenging coursework and better career pathways into high school.

But time will tell what these test results really mean and whether their underlying assumption—that the common core embodies higher expectations and will help students achieve more—is true. Are the tests in grades 3-8, for instance, really more rigorous than their predecessors? And will students truly be showing better learning when—and if—their scores rise in the next few years? Will tracking those students’ performance in high school, career, and college give us the answers to these questions?

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