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Test scores are going to go down next year. Blame the Common Core.

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.
  1. Most students' math and reading skills are going to look much worse after they take Common Core-aligned tests in spring 2015.
  2. More than half of students will probably get scores too low to be considered proficient, a group of 17 states working together on Common Core tests announced Monday.
  3. The tests are a big deal, partly because states have never shared a definition of what counts as "proficient" in English or math before.
  4. The biggest public relations test yet for Common Core will be whether parents and teachers turn against the standards once the lower scores come out.

The background: Common Core tests are harder, and this is a big year

The Common Core standards are important partly because they mark the first time most states have had the same goals for what student learning. Some states are going even further than shared standards, and will finish rolling out a shared, standardized test in the spring of 2015.

That's a big deal. In the past, every state has set its own standards and written its own tests, making it difficult to compare students nationwide against each other. A shared test will make the scores easier to understand when students move from state to state or when colleges are trying to decide if they need remedial classes.

The test results on Common Core exams, at least at first, are likely to make students' reading and math abilities look worse than they did on older state tests. The standards are more demanding than what many states had in place previously, and the tests are more difficult.

New York and Kentucky — the only two states that have fully switched over to Common Core tests — have already learned that lesson. Proficiency rates dropped by about half in both states, from around two-thirds of students to about one-third:

common core card

Most states tried out Common Core tests in spring 2014, but it was just a trial run. Although the tests were graded, students didn't get their scores and the results don't count for school or teacher accountability. In spring 2015, students in most states will take Common Core standardized tests for real. The evidence is piling up that their scores will be lower than they were on old tests.

Students' scores in at least 17 states are likely to drop

The Smarter Balanced consortium, a group of 17 states working together on shared Common Core tests, just agreed on how well students will have to perform on the tests to be considered proficient. And most students who took the Common Core pilot tests this spring weren't proficient in either language arts or math, the group said.

Smarter Balanced uses numbered levels — 1, 2, 3, and 4 — to set proficiency levels, with 3 and up considered on track to be ready for college or a career at high school graduation. Most students this year weren't at level 3:

Smarter Balanced results in math 2014

The same is true in language arts, where at best 40 percent of students would have been considered proficient:

Smarter Balanced language arts results

Compared to the tests states are using right now, these proficiency rates make students' skills look much worse. In Connecticut, for example, where students will take Smarter Balanced tests this year, 83 percent of third-graders scored as proficient in math on state tests in 2013, and 72 percent were proficient in reading.

Scores might improve this year, since kids will have had an additional year of Common Core lessons in class. But test score improvements are usually a few points each year, not a dramatic jump. So it seems inevitable that students in Smarter Balanced's 17 states won't fare as well on the new tests as they did on the old ones.

"We’re hopeful and have every expectation that we’ll continue to see, over the years ahead, incremental improvements in student performance," said Jacqueline King, director of higher education collaboration for Smarter Balanced.

The big question: Will parents support the Common Core if their children are failing tests?

Next summer, when students get their individual scores on Common Core tests, could be a watershed moment for the standards. It's one thing to support higher standards in theory. It's another thing to support them when your children have gone from being proficient to scoring at level 1 or level 2.

One state — Kentucky — weathered the storm of lower state test scores fairly well. But in New York, parents and teachers seemed taken by surprise by the lower scores, fueling a backlash against Common Core.

Low scores on Common Core tests will add more fuel to criticisms that the standards are too hard, lessons are too confusing, or that the whole reform is being rushed. They could also lead more states to decide to write their own tests and drop out of consortiums like Smarter Balanced.

Common Core argue that the old standards essentially lied to students — telling them they were college-ready when they weren't — and that states can avoid a backlash by managing expectations.

"It’s really a matter of making sure that constituents know this is coming — the 'no surprises' rule," King says. "if you can do a thorough job of helping folks know this is coming, understand why it’s happening, and understand what it means, when the scores come out, people sort of say, 'Yeah, that is what we expected.' "

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