What’s Wrong With the Common-Core Tests? Maybe Nothing, Analysis Says

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 28, 2018 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

It’s very unlikely that the flattening of student test scores in states using the Smarter Balanced assessment in 2016-17 is due to technical problems with the exam, the group’s leadership concluded in a new report released Wednesday.

In February, Curriculum Matters brought you the details of a debate about the meaning of the largely flat scores on the exam, given that year in 13 states.

At the time, some critics questioned whether those results genuinely reflected a stall in student achievement, or whether it pointed to serious issues in the test. Perhaps, they said, Smarter Balanced didn’t include enough test questions to measure the full range of student skills.

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium officials promised to examine this question in a series of technical analyses.

Essentially, consortium wonks took samples of results from the states that administered the exam and analyzed them to see whether they lined up with expected scores. They also looked at how the test items “performed"—whether they were as easy or hard as field tests indicated.

They’ve now released their results of their analyses. Warning: the 30-page report is pretty technical. Have a testing expert on speed-dial if you decide to brave it. (SBAC also put out a much shorter summary.)

Here are the most important takeaways:

  • Mean test scores were down in most grades for English/language arts, and most steeply in 5th grade English/language arts. In math, they fell for all secondary grades, but rose for the primary grades. Overall, however, these are very small changes, and it’s not clear how meaningful they are in terms of measuring learning.
  • SBAC enlarged the pool of computer-scored test questions by half in ELA, and about a third in math, for the 2016-17 administration.
  • These new questions were generally easier than the “old” questions, which contradicts the theory that scores were flat because the test had too many difficult questions. Importantly, because the test adapts to students’ achievement levels, having more easy questions in the pool doesn’t necessarily mean that students got an “easier” test overall.
  • Students did tend to do slightly less well on these new test questions than on older test items. These differences were small overall, though, and don’t seem to explain the bigger-picture achievement patterns. Grades and subjects with the highest performance differences between old and new test items didn’t neatly line up with the grades and subjects that saw mean score declines.
  • Student performance differed by test question type. In math, students tended to do better on computer-scored items than on the “performance tasks"—multi-stage problems worth several points and scored by hand—and in ELA, they did better on performance tasks than on the computer-scored questions.

Looking across this data, SBAC officials conclude that the test was functioning as it was designed to do, and that the 2016-17 results are an accurate description of what students in those states knew and could do when they took the test.

In addition, an outside reviewer from the Center for Assessment, a New Hampshire-based test-consulting group, largely agreed with the SBAC analysis.

So just how are we supposed to interpret the flat scores for 2016-17? That’s trickier.

The data suggests that some of the early gains on the test, in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 years, were probably partly the result of students simply becoming more familiar with the exam format. This is essentially the “plateau effect,” a term testing experts use to describe the initial boost followed by a drop-off in scores.

But the strong performance on the ELA performance tasks could also indicate more teaching in alignment with the Common Core’s focus on citing evidence in reading and writing.

SBAC said it will establish “additional procedures to monitor and potentially discriminate better between growth due to increased familiarity with the test and true improvement in student learning.”

Image: Getty

Related stories:

Related Tags:

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

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


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.
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
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.
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
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.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

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

Assessment Spotlight Spotlight on Assessment in 2021
In this Spotlight, review newest assessment scores, see how districts will catch up with their supports for disabled students, plus more.
Assessment 'Nation's Report Card' Has a New Reading Framework, After a Drawn-Out Battle Over Equity
The new framework for the National Assessment of Educational Progress will guide development of the 2026 reading test.
10 min read
results 925693186 02
Assessment Opinion Q&A Collections: Assessment
Scores of educators share commentaries on the use of assessments in schools.
5 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Assessment Standardized Tests Could Be in Jeopardy in Wake of Biden Decisions, Experts Say
Has the Biden administration shored up statewide tests this year only to risk undermining long-term public backing for them?
6 min read
Image of a test sheet.