Nationwide, student achievement is ticking upward thanks to the implementation of more rigorous academic standards. By the 2015-16 school year, students in the majority of states were taught to the Common Core State Standards, or CCSS, or similarly rigorous state standards for at least three years. And higher expectations seem to be paying off—across all 50 states, more students are meeting stronger state learning standards.
These advances, however, have not come easy. In part due to politically charged sentiment against the CCSS, parents in pockets around the country began to opt their students out of the aligned tests in the 2014-15 school year. In response, states worked to improve their testing practices by shortening or eliminating tests and limiting test preparation. States also improved their communication around the purpose and usefulness of these tests, which are required by law to monitor student progress and identify gaps in achievement.
Participation in annual tests has since increased, particularly in locations where the opt-out movement had gained popularity. Achievement has also gone up; not only are more students taking annual tests, but they are also doing better compared with the 2014-15 school year.
In 2015-16, the percentage of students who met grade-level standards increased in reading and math in most states. According to a state-by-state review by the Center for American Progress, 34 states increased their overall proficiency from 2014-15, with three other states showing consistent results. Only two states, Indiana and Iowa, saw overall decreases, but both states used tests that were not aligned to their standards during this period, and Indiana also replaced its standards. Twelve states were either unable to report or were unable to compare results due to testing glitches, cancellations, or changes in assessment.
Improvements in achievement
While nearly all students improved nationwide, one group seems to have benefited the most from more rigorous standards and tests—third-graders, who have been taught to rigorous standards for most of their education. In particular, results for third-grade math show the largest gains nationally compared with other grades and with overall reading results, such as in Louisiana, with a gain of 9 percentage points; Rhode Island, the District of Columbia, and New Jersey, with gains of 7 percentage points; and California, with a gain of 6 percentage points.* Nationally, more than 91,000 additional third-grade students reached proficiency in math in 2015-16 than in 2014-15.
What’s more, across school years and subjects, the states with the largest achievement gains are those using the CCSS, or standards that are similarly rigorous, and their aligned tests, such as the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium or a similarly aligned state test. Seven states saw particularly significant increases in proficiency rates in reading and math statewide:
- California: +5 in reading and +4 in math for grades three through eight and 11
- Connecticut: +3 in reading and +4 in math for grades three through eight
- Delaware:+3 in reading and +3 in math for grades three through eight
- Idaho: +2 in reading and +2 in math for grades three through eight and 11
- New York: +7 in reading and +1 in math for grades three through eight
- South Dakota: +4 on reading and +4 in math for grades three through eight and 11
- West Virginia: +2 in reading and +3 in math for grades three through eight
Improved testing practices
Not only were more students proficient in both reading and math in 2015-16 compared with the prior school year, but more parents also chose to opt their students back into annual tests. These increases likely reflect a greater understanding of the benefits of testing as well as improvements to testing practices.
Washington state, which has improved its communication around annual testing, saw as much as a 3 percentage point increase since 2014-15 and a participation rate of approximately 98 percent for elementary-age students. Reading participation rates for high school students improved from 53 percent in 2014-15 to 88 percent last year, while math participation rates rose from 50 percent to 61 percent. These improvements increase confidence that the state’s higher achievement is not a fluke but rather a representation of nearly all students in the state. Maine, which administered a new test last year, similarly improved its reading score, and its reading participation rate grew from over 89 percent in 2014-15 to over 97 percent in 2015-16.
Research by CAP previously noted that several states have followed the edict to make their tests better, fairer, and fewer and communicate openly about the purpose and use of state tests. These actions could be stemming the tide of opting out. New York state, for example, has held relatively stable, with 22 percent of students not taking tests in 2015-16 compared with 20 percent in 2014-15. Opt-outs are localized mostly on Long Island, where rates hover around 50 percent.
Maintaining forward momentum
As a nation, we value knowing the achievement of all students as a matter of promoting educational equity. States should continue to develop better ways to measure student learning to maintain the positive momentum of improvements in achievement and testing practices. To meet this need, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, gives states significant flexibility in how they annually test their students and reduces the stakes those tests carry to address issues such as testing anxiety. States can also develop new ways to test through project-based assessments and use student growth, meaning student improvement year to year, rather than just a standalone proficiency score to measure school quality.
States and districts should hold fast to higher standards as they take advantage of new opportunities under ESSA to make their tests better, fairer, and fewer. Rigorous learning expectations, improved testing practices, and a more holistic view of student success will support schools in their work to prepare students for college, career, and beyond.
Laura Jimenez is the Director of Standards and Accountability at the Center for American Progress. Samantha Batel is a Policy Analyst with the K-12 Education team at the Center. Coleton Whitaker is the Campaign Coordinator at the Center.
* Author’s note: States often present test results to one-tenth of a point. All results are rounded to the nearest whole number to present uniform achievement results.