Early Assessment of Common Core Standards Shows Small Gains

Both reading and math scores rose more in states that were early and strong adopters of new standards, Brookings study finds

In a very early assessment of how Common Core standards may be influencing how much students learn, a new Brookings report finds small math and reading test score gains for students who live in states that embraced the new standards early.

The researcher, Tom Loveless, looked at how fourth-grade reading scores changed between 2009 and 2013 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a trusted national test taken by students across the United States every two years. He found that test scores of students in states that were strong, early adopters of Common Core standards rose between 1 and 1.5 points more than those of students who lived in states that didn’t adopt the standards.  This echoes his finding from last year, when he found that eighth-grade NAEP math scores also increased by a similar 1- to 1.5-point amount in states that were enthusiastic, early adopters of Common Core.

“For any trend, we want to see it over a long time,” said Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy within the  Brookings Institution. “This is a early stage report. Right now the effects look small.”

“It could be that states need more time, but innovations can also produce their biggest pop earlier in implementation rather than later,” Loveless added. “It’s possible that we’ve seen the biggest effects … a one and a half point NAEP gain might be as good as it gets.”

It might be premature to start calculating how well the new Common Core educational standards, currently in place in roughly 40 states, are working out. After all, most states didn’t adopt the new standards until 2011. Most students won’t be tested in the new standards for the first time until this Spring 2015.  Some states don’t plan to fully implement the new standards in the classroom until 2016.

“All the defenders [of Common Core] say I shouldn’t be doing this, it’s too early,” said Loveless. “I don’t think it’s too early. Kentucky is five years into this. Most of the other states are four years in.”

The data analysis is located within Part II of an annual Brown center report on American education, titled, “Measuring Effects of Common Core.” Loveless began with a 2011 U.S. Department of Education survey that asked states how much they were spending on teacher training, new curriculum, installing computer systems and doing other things necessary to implement Common Core. Loveless categorized 19 states as strong adopters, and found that their students had higher test score gains than the four states that didn’t adopt Common Core standards. In those four states — Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia — test scores declined during the 2009-13 period, on average. Loveless also looked at a 2013 survey, asking states when they planned to implement Common Core standards in their classrooms. Twelve states said they planned full implementation by the 2012-13 school year and, again, their students’  test scores rose more than in the four states that didn’t adopt Common Core standards.

But not all Common Core states saw higher scores. One of the strongest and earliest Common Core adopters, Kentucky, actually saw its fourth grade reading scores decline during both the 2009-2011 and the 2011-2013 periods.  So the positive results for the Common Core states are driven by other states, led by Georgia and Minnesota.

Loveless said he wanted to conduct this early analysis in light of the controversies that followed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) reforms of the George W. Bush administration. Some argued that NAEP scores rose after those reforms, which became law in 2002 and required the annual testing of students. Others calculated that NAEP scores were disappointing. In this report, Loveless explains that both sides were right. It depends on when you decide to begin measuring. Those who selected an earlier start date of 2000 for measuring NCLB results saw greater student gains than those who selected 2003 as a start date. That’s because some of the largest gains in NAEP history happened between 2000 and 2003. And reasonable people can make good arguments either for starting in 2000, when some states were already getting a jumpstart on the new reforms, or for waiting until 2003, when they were fully implemented.

Inevitably, a similar controversy will surround when to start measuring student gains related to the Common Core — in 2011, when states began adopting it, or in 2016 after full implementation. Loveless says data watchers should keep a sharp eye on the next NAEP scores, in 2015. If they go up, Common Core supporters will want to use an early start date.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay is the founding editor and writer of Education By The Numbers, The Hechinger Report's blog about education data.