Every two years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress administers rigorous math and reading tests to a representative sample of fourth- and eighth-grade students from each state and Washington, D.C. NAEP occasionally administers assessments covering other subjects, grade levels, and jurisdictions, but the math and reading results are by far the most important.
North Carolina’s public schools produced remarkable increases in fourth- and eighth-grade math and fourth-grade reading scores in the 1990s and early 2000s. With the exception of eighth-grade reading, North Carolina’s average scale scores exceeded the national average during this period. But the state’s math and reading scores have been stagnant since 2009 or so.
This year, North Carolina’s average fourth-grade math score, while higher than the national average, was not significantly different than the 2013 score. There was a significant three-point drop in the state’s average eighth-grade math score compared to two years ago.
On the other hand, there was a significant and impressive increase in the state’s average fourth-grade reading score, which was four points higher in 2015 than it was in 2013 and is higher than the national average. North Carolina’s average eighth-grade reading score, however, dropped by four points.
The bottom line is that there were impressive gains in fourth-grade reading and either no gains or declines in the other three tested grades and subjects.
What makes this year’s results even more noteworthy is that they may indicate the relative success or failure of the Common Core State Standards. North Carolina and many other states adopted Common Core in 2010 and began implementing the math and English Language Arts standards soon after.
Unlike eighth-grade students, whose schooling began four years before the adoption of Common Core, fourth-grade students have known no other standards. For better or worse, this year’s NAEP results are a litmus test for the efficacy of Common Core.
The 2015 NAEP results suggest that fourth-grade students may have benefited from Common Core English Language Arts standards but not math standards. It is also possible that other reading initiatives, such as Read to Achieve, played a role in boosting our fourth-grade reading score.
The story for eighth-grade students is more complicated. The state implemented Common Core as eighth-grade students started middle school. Perhaps the transition from North Carolina standards to the Common Core confused students and teachers. If new standards muddled classroom instruction, then we should fault those who coordinated the implementation of the new standards.
As one would predict, both opponents and proponents of Common Core are out in force offering competing interpretations of the NAEP scores. Opponents of the standards point out that test score decreases among eighth-grade students and the adoption of Common Core are likely not a coincidence.
Even the mainstream media is siding with Common Core naysayers. An Associated Press article, “Math, reading scores slip for nation’s school kids under Common Core,” is one of the many I have encountered that make an explicit connection between declining scores and the standards.
In addition to pointing out the gains made by fourth-grade students, proponents of Common Core argue that the standards and NAEP tests are not fully aligned, thereby invalidating any link between the standards and the test. That claim, however, cannot be squared with a recent NAEP Validity Studies Panel study that concluded, “Overall, the review by expert panelists suggests that concordance between NAEP and the CCSS [in fourth- and eighth-grade math] is reasonable at both grade levels.”
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that Americans should “expect scores in this period to bounce around some” due to implementation issues. Curiously, he cited no such issues upon the release of NAEP scores two years ago.
While I am among those who have raised concerns about the standards, I am also well aware that any number of instructional and noninstructional factors may produce changes in accountability results. Clearly, new standards and programs play a role in guiding the trajectory of both state and national test scores, but at this point, it is impossible to know the extent of their influence in North Carolina and elsewhere.
The 2015 NAEP results are not a wholesale repudiation of Common Core. At the same time, they do raise legitimate questions about the implementation of the standards.
Fortunately, state legislators anticipated the need for further study and created the Academic Standards Review Commission to do just that. In fact, North Carolina is far ahead of other states by having an independent entity already in place to consider the relationship between NAEP tests and Common Core.