Rising to the Challenge of New Tests

Every parent knows that kids must be challenged to be well prepared for life’s tests. The worst thing a parent can do is lower expectations for their children. Yet, that’s precisely what most states in America did. Until now. In the months ahead, for the first time, many states will release scores to districts, schools, teachers and parents on the new tests aligned with the more rigorous Common Core State Standards. It is widely expected that the scores will show that fewer students are on grade than previous state tests indicated. But it’s also likely that the scores will start rising again as students and teachers get used to the higher standards and rise to the challenge. In fact, it appears to be happening. Washington State, which is among the first states to release new test scores for 2015, offers a useful case study. In the 2010-2011 school year, before the Common Core State Standards were implemented, 68.7 percent percent of eighth-grade students in Washington were “meeting standards” in reading and 50.3 percent were “meeting standards” in math on their state tests. However, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national test administered to a random sample of students, only 37 percent percent of eighth-grade students in Washington were “proficient” in reading and only 40 percent were proficient in math. The discrepancy between the state test results and the national test results suggested that Washington State’s learning standards were too low and the test was too easy. That same year, while 76 percent of Washington state students graduated from high school, only 35 percent were considered “college ready” in all four subjects on the ACT, (English, reading, math and science). Not surprisingly, just 21.5 percent of 20-34-year-olds in Washington held a bachelor’s degree, confirming that many high school graduates from Washington were far from college-ready. A 2010 analysis by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute also gave Washington State’s reading standards a C and math standards an A compared to the Common Core State Standards. Fordham’s analysis looked at all 50 states and concluded that the Common Core State Standards were more rigorous than English/reading standards in 37 states and math standards in 39 states.

Staying the Course

Fast-forward to today where Washington state has just released statewide results from a Common Core aligned test and it shows that 58 percent of eighth graders are on track in reading and 48 percent are on track in math. The findings are fairly consistent with the Fordham analysis from five years ago: the old reading standards were too low but the math standards were actually pretty good. Best of all, the students are meeting the challenge presented by the higher standards. This year’s scores in Washington State are dramatically higher than last year’s field tests. The same is true in Oregon and Idaho, where this year’s results showed considerable improvement over last year’s field tests. Kentucky, the first state to administer tests aligned with the new Common Core State Standards also saw scores decline compared to the old Kentucky state tests but in the second and third year they started rebounding in most grades. One exception is New York, where the second year of Common Core-aligned tests showed only modest gains. But for all of the drama around the standards being too high and the tests being too hard, many teachers and students are rapidly acclimating to the more rigorous standards and curriculum and raising their games. Congress, which is now updating the federal education law governing K-12 education, should take note. Both chambers passed separate bills specifying that states must set challenging standards in reading and math though they explicitly prohibit the federal government from enticing or requiring states to adopt the Common Core. To their credit, both proposals also require states to continue annual testing of reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. We should all be grateful that, with these new tests, we’re much closer to knowing if our children are truly on track to success.  
Peter Cunningham is the Executive Director of Education Post. An original version this post appeared on Real Clear Education.
Photo by cybrarian77, CC-licensed.
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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