Despite Common Core, States Still Lack Common Standards

Only 35 percent of U.S. 8th graders were identified as proficient in math by the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). According to the most recent calculations available, the United States stands at the 32nd rank in math among nations in the industrialized world. In reading, the U.S. ranks 17th in the world (see “Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete?” features, Fall 2011).

The low performance of U.S. students has been attributed to low expectations set by states under the 2002 federal law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which expects all students to reach full proficiency by 2014. In this, the fifth in a series of Education Next reports, we compare the proficiency standards set by each state to those set by NAEP, which has established its proficiency bar at levels comparable to those of international student assessments.

Most states have set their proficiency bars at much lower levels, perhaps because it causes less embarrassment when more students can make it across the proficiency bar, or because it was the easiest way for states to comply with the NCLB requirement to bring all students up to full proficiency.

Unhappy with the low level and wide variation in state standards, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, with the financial backing of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the political support of the U.S. Department of Education (ED), formed a consortium in 2009 that invited each state to join in an effort to set Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Those states that take that step and institute other education reforms improve their chances of receiving an ED waiver of onerous NCLB regulations. That waiver, which has been granted to 37 states and the District of Columbia, provides a strong incentive to participate in CCSS. (Virginia is the only state to receive a waiver without adopting the standards.)

The stated CCSS goal is to set standards and proficiency bars at levels matching those established by international organizations and thereby bring the nation’s students to levels attained by peers in leading countries abroad. CCSS proponents also expect students to acquire a deep understanding of concepts and relationships. In math, for example, students are expected to justify formulas and explain their thinking rather than simply identify correct numerical relationships.

CCSS is not without its critics. Alabama and Indiana are threatening to withdraw from participation in CCSS on the grounds that the federal government is imposing a national curriculum on local school districts. In Massachusetts and California, opposition groups claim that existing state standards exceed those proposed by CCSS. Others worry because teachers unions are calling for a moratorium on stakes attached to student testing until the new CCSS standards have been fully implemented, which may take several years.

Despite the controversy, 45 states have officially adopted CCSS, pledging themselves to a high, common definition of expected student competencies, to be assessed by common tests starting in 2015. Whether or not that commitment is reflected in any lifting of standards in practice in the meantime is the question we investigate in this report.

Measuring State Proficiency Standards

We estimate each state’s actual standards by comparing the percentage of students the state identifies as proficient based on its own assessments with the percentage of the students in the state NAEP identifies as proficient. If the proficiency rates reported by the state are roughly the same as those reported by NAEP, we conclude that the state has set a high, internationally competitive standard.

To simplify presentation, we have given each state a mark of A to F, depending on the strength of its standards relative to all other states in all years for which information is available, from 2003 to 2011. Separate marks are given in reading and math for both 4th- and 8th-grade students. To obtain an overall mark for each state, we average the marks for the four grade-subject combinations. Table 1 presents the rank order of the states in 2011. It also displays the marks each state received based on assessments administered in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009.

Note that an A or a B does not indicate a relatively high performance by students in the state. Rather, it indicates that the state’s definition of proficient embodies higher expectations for students. It is best thought of as a high grade for “truth in advertising,” telling citizens frankly how well students are performing on an internationally accepted scale, just as states have pledged to do by joining the CCSS consortium. See the methodological sidebar for further details.

Trends in Strength of Tests

Although not as many states earned the highest grade in 2011 as in 2009, the overall situation since 2007 has been stable. As shown in Table 2, overall standards for both math and reading in 4th and 8th grades have risen by just 0.02 standard deviations. In the most recent period, the upward shift was 0.08 standard deviations. Standards slipped in 26 states between 2009 and 2011 while rising in 24 states and the District of Columbia (see Table 1). Although standards are lower since they were first measured in 2003, most of this decline took place during the first two years the standards were in place, and some of that decline reflected the inclusion of testing in additional subjects and grade levels for which no proficiency standards had previously been provided. Many of these new standards were set at lower levels than those set by 2003 (see “Johnny Can Read…in Some States,” features, Summer 2005).

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