Parents, we can handle the truth about Common Core and test scores

I know from experience that parents generally don’t tune into news about state test results until they get that personalized report about their own child’s performance on the state exams. And unfortunately, those reports tend to arrive in the backpack or by snail mail many months after the exam–so it can feel a little beside-the-point when your kid has already moved on to a new grade and new teachers.

So given that, I worry that parents are missing the bigger headline: Common Core is working. It’s working despite all the hullabaloo about fuzzy math. Despite all the conspiracy theories about a federal takeover. And despite all the whining from the affluent opt-out parents who didn’t want their precious snowflakes to endure the stress of these tough new Common Core exams.

The Collaborative for Student Success just published a new roundup of test score progress from all 27 of the states that have adopted high, comparable standards. As the article points out:

While there are numerous factors that affect student scores, and it is still too early to make definitive declarations, the 2016 assessments suggest that the promise of higher academic standards—whatever they may be called—is working.

In a majority of states that have released scores for the 2015-16 school year, aggregate scores rose for students in grades 3-8. It is notable that, while much hay has been made about “fuzzy” or “new” math—early introduction to conceptual math, and a focus on showing students multiple ways of solving problems, is benefitting our nation’s students. Not only have scores increased, but more third-graders are on grade-level than in previous years. While math has been much maligned on social media, third-graders—who have had most, if not all, of their instruction aligned to the increased rigor of the Common Core—are proving that they are up to the challenge, with proficiency rates improving by nearly four points across the country. Similarly, fourth-graders improved by just over three points.

While we only have disaggregated data by race and ethnicity for some states, the results are encouraging and provide an early indication that our traditionally underserved students are also improving. For example, in Vermont, sixth and eighth-grade Hispanic students saw proficiency rates grow 15 and 13 percentage points (respectively) in English Language Arts (ELA); in Colorado, black fourth-graders grew more than four percentage points in ELA compared to the previous year’s fourth graders―more than any of their peers.  We still have a long way to go, but early signs show that we’re moving in the right direction.

Granted, the proficiency scores may not look as rosy as they did years ago, when too many states set embarrassingly low bars for students to “pass” or “meet proficiency” on state exams. Many suburban schools grew complacent with rosy pass rates that hovered in the 80s and 90s, and it wasn’t until their students hit high school that they were confronted with the inconvenient truth that too few of these students were prepared for college, based on their subpar college entrance exams and their unacceptably high rates of college remediation.

It’s taken a few years for reality to set in, but it appears schools and teachers across the nation are rising to the challenge, embracing Common Core–or whatever it’s called for political expedience in their states–and delivering lessons that will help their students master higher-order math and literacy skills over the long haul. As the above infographic illustrates, some of the most promising trends are in the earliest grades, for third graders who have been exposed to these high standards from the beginning of their school days and haven’t had to struggle with a transition from the low standards. It also appears states that have committed to supporting schools through this transition are seeing the best progress:

While many states have bright spots, California, Louisiana, South Dakota and Connecticut stand out for making some of the greatest aggregate gains in each subject area. These states have also led in ensuring teachers were supported with resources and strong professional development. No one factor can account for why certain states have experienced more growth than others, but, states who have remained committed to the standards and to supporting their students and teachers are seeing the largest gains.

So parents, let’s try to think about that big picture when those individual student reports start to land–and when we’re tempted to panic because our cherished children don’t look quite as “above average” as they did when the tests were way too easy. We need to play the long game here. This is about learning the truth, and we can handle the truth.

What do you think?
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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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