Kentucky’s real “progress” under Common Core

With the Kentucky legislature coming back into session, a number of education issues are heating up. One of the more hotly debated topics will be whether the state continues to use the Common Core State Standards for its English language arts and math standards.

Because Kentucky was the first state to adopt the Common Core and has more experience with it than any other state, the coming battle is likely to get considerable attention outside the borders of the Bluegrass State.

Already, lines are forming, and shots were fired last week in an Op-Ed that appeared under the title “Column: Common Core: If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” in the Community Recorder newspaper in Northern Kentucky and under a different title in the Courier-Journal. Unfortunately, as typically happens with an advocacy piece, there is a very large amount of what the late Paul Harvey used to call “The rest of the story” that didn’t make it into the Op-Eds.

But, our readers deserve to know the rest of the story, so let’s take a more informed look at Common Core.

We will start with the most important issue, one related to assertions in the Op-Ed that Common Core is working. Well, you certainly can’t see that in reading and mathematics scores for Kentucky from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Let’s take a look.

Figure 1 shows the overall average score for “all students” in Kentucky from the 2011, 2013 and 2015 administrations of the NAEP eighth grade math assessment. This covers a period from one school term before Kentucky started KPREP Common Core aligned testing in math and reading through the latest available NAEP data.

As you can see, Kentucky’s scores on this 500-point scale NAEP assessment don’t show Common Core working at all. In fact, as indicated by the asterisks by the scores for 2011 and 2013, the scores in both of those years were statistically significantly higher than the latest available score for 2015. To make this crystal clear, NAEP shows Kentucky experienced a definite decline in eighth grade math performance after Common Core came on line.

Figure 1

G8 NAEP Math for KY 2011 to 2015

This isn’t looking at results for Advanced Placement tests (which cover material far more advanced than anything in Common Core) or a Harvard study that looks at changes over a two-decade long period as the Op-Eds did. Those can’t provide very precise information about what happened as a result of Common Core.

This is looking directly at students in grades that are fully under the influence of Common Core in Kentucky, and the obvious result isn’t encouraging.

The bad news for progress under Common Core doesn’t end with eighth grade math, either. To see still more of “The rest of the story,” just click the “Read more” link.

Figure 2 shows the story about Kentucky’s eighth grade reading performance on NAEP during the Common Core era. There are no asterisks on this figure because the scores are all very close together, too close for NAEP to show any statistically significant differences.

However, there is still real trouble for Common Core here. It’s clear that while the 2015 score of 268 isn’t statistically lower than the pre-KPREP Common Core testing era score of 269 from 2011, it most definitely isn’t higher. There is NO PROGRESS shown here. When you consider that the NAEP shows only 36 percent of Kentucky’s eighth grade students read at or above the assessment’s “Proficient” level in 2015, this is really bad news. Kentucky needs progress, not stagnation.

Figure 2

G8 NAEP Reading for KY 2011 to 2015

In general Kentucky’s fourth graders have tended to do better than the eighth graders on NAEP, so I expected to find possibly more encouraging results for that grade level. I got surprised, and not in a good way.

Figure 3 shows how Kentucky’s fourth graders performed on NAEP math in the Common Core era.

Again notice that there are no asterisks next to any of the listed scores. That means the 242 score for 2015 isn’t statistically significantly different from either the 2013 or 2011 score. That means there has been no detectable progress in fourth grade math under Common Core, either.

Figure 3

G4 NAEP Math for KY 2011 to 2015

Finally, let’s look at fourth grade reading, which has always been Kentucky’s strongest area on NAEP compared to other states.

Figure 4

G4 NAEP Reading for KY 2011 to 2015

Even when we examine what might be considered Kentucky’s NAEP strength area, the very small score change in fourth grade reading between 2011 and 2015 isn’t statistically significant. Once again, as far as NAEP can tell us, any improvement that might have occurred is so small that we cannot be confident that improvement is real and not just a result of statistical sampling errors.

By the way, as of 2015 only 40 percent of Kentucky’s fourth grade students were rated “Proficient or Above” in reading by the NAEP. As mentioned earlier, only 36 percent of the eighth grade students were proficient in reading. So, on top of everything else, it’s clear Kentucky’s students lose ground as they work their way up through the grades in the state’s public school system.

This lost ground issue is far more pronounced in the math area where the fourth grade NAEP proficiency for Kentucky in 2015 was also 40 percent but the eighth grade proficiency rate was a dismal 28 percent.

So far, Common Core hasn’t fixed that decay in performance over the grade levels, either.

Certainly, quite opposite to the claims in the Op-Eds, NAEP provides proof that Kentucky’s education system isn’t running “unbridled” under Common Core, it’s just a runaway.

Technical Note: All the NAEP data was obtained from the online NAEP Data Explorer.