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Blog Post · September 9, 2015

Students Struggle on Test of New Standards

California gave its first statewide tests aligned with the Common Core standards last spring. The scores have just come out, with 40% of fourth-graders scoring proficient or better on the English Language Arts (ELA) test and 35% doing so in math. Scores for 8th and 11th grade are somewhat higher in ELA and lower in math. This new test is called the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

The share scoring proficient or higher on the new test is lower than on the old test, the California Standards Test (CST). In the final year that students were tested using CST—and on the old state standards—67% of fourth-graders scored proficient or higher. Most public school parents (71%) expected students to score at least as well on the new tests as on the old ones, according to a recent PPIC Statewide Survey. But most educators did not. Here’s why: the Common Core standards are more demanding than California’s old ones, students and teachers are in the early years of transitioning to these standards, and what it means to be proficient on the new test is different than on the old one. California is not the only state finding that the first year of Common Core testing reset perceptions of student performance.

To the right we present results for the CST and the Smarter Balanced tests, alongside California students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a national ongoing assessment of what children know in a variety of subject areas. While these three test results are not directly comparable because each measures competence relative to different standards and each has its own definition of what it takes for a student to score “proficient,” it is important to have a clear sense of how our students are faring on each. The Smarter Balanced test results for each student group are higher than the NAEP, but low relative to the most recent CST.

We find gaps in proficiency for economically disadvantaged students and English Learners (ELs). Each group is specifically targeted for higher funding levels by the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). The CST gaps between EL and white students (61%) and between economically disadvantaged and white students (31%) are both smaller than those for the Smarter Balanced test (79% and 54%, respectively). Gaps for the NAEP are somewhat larger than in the Smarter Balanced tests. Educators will not be surprised by these findings.

California’s public school system has seen dramatic changes in recent years, and the 2014–15 Smarter Balanced test results are an important baseline to measure how these changes are affecting students. In the past, California students’ test results improved almost every year that the CST was administered. Today, both the Common Core State Standards and the LCFF aim to improve outcomes for all students and close achievement gaps. Multiple years of Smarter Balanced test results will be needed to monitor progress. These new higher standards are meant to improve outcomes well beyond secondary schooling, and the least advantaged students have the farthest to go. The new curriculum and new funding should help get them there.

Note (TOP CHART): NAEP is given to a representative sample of California students. FRPL refers to students who qualify for free or reduced price meals. Source: 2012-2013 California Standards Test, 2012-13 National Assessment of Educational Progress, and 2014-15 Smarter Balanced Assessments.
Note (BOTTOM CHART): We calculate the percentage gap by subtracting EL and economically disadvantaged students scores from white student scores and dividing by white students’ scores. Source: Authors’ calculations from the SBAC, NAEP, and CST.


achievement gap common core K–12 Education Local Control Funding Formula school finance testing