California Student Test-Score Plunge: Common Core a Likely Culprit


The results of the 2019 National Assessment for Educational Progress, often called the “Nation’s Report Card,” came out recently and California’s scores once again tanked, with one of the likely causes being the national Common Core standards and aligned curricula.

The NAEP exam, which is given every two years, tests students in fourth and eighth grade, and is measured on a 500-point scale with student performance categorized as advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic.

On the fourth-grade reading and math tests, changes in California student scores from the state’s 2017 results were scientifically insignificant.

However, on the eighth-grade reading exam, California’s reading scores fell by three points, which mirrored the decline nationally.

The average reading score for California eighth graders was 259, which was lower than the national average of 262.

The average math score for eighth-grade Californians was 276 versus the national average of 281.

Worse, both eighth-grade math and reading scores in the Los Angeles Unified School District fell by six points, which was the largest decline of the 27 urban school districts that were measured.

There were troubling indications among specific demographic groups with, for example, the reading scores of African-American fourth and eighth graders falling.

Many in the California public-education establishment excuse poor test results by pointing to the fact that the state has among the highest proportion of low-income students in the nation.

It is true that few low-income California students score at the desired proficient level, which is defined as indicating full mastery over subject-matter material.

But it is not just low-income students who are failing to meet the proficient benchmark.

On the eighth-grade reading exam, more than half of non-low-income California students—53 percent—failed to score at the proficient level, while exactly half of non-low-income students failed to hit proficiency on the eighth-grade reading exam.

In other words, half or more of middle-class and more affluent California eighth graders are failing to achieve proficiency in the basic subjects.

No wonder that California has had a massive and long-running problem with students needing remedial instruction in math and English when they enter higher education.

So, what is causing the poor performance among California students?

According to Ze’ev Wurman, former senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush, there are two likely causes: the Common Core standards and curricula and the lack of school and teacher accountability.

The Common Core national standards, testing and aligned curricula have been operating in California for a number of years now, and Wurman observes: “In addition to being mediocre in its academic expectations, Common Core dragged in its unscientific and discredited pedagogy,” such as the “de-emphasis of fluency with arithmetic and number manipulation.”

More affluent parents, notes Wurman, have been able to compensate for the mediocrity and deficiencies of Common Core by supplementing their children’s education with extra-curricular support, while, “Less lucky kids without such support floundered.”

Indeed, Wurman points out that the gap between higher achieving students and lower achieving students “have widened in the last 4-6 years,” which is the period when Common Core was implemented in California.

For example, “grade eight gaps grew by 12-13 NAEP points (a full-grade worth),” with the widening gaps “due to small growth in the better students’ scores and dips in weaker student scores.”

Wurman also says that the decline in NAEP scores has been due to “the removal of academic accountability for schools and teachers under the Every Student Succeeds Act,” which was signed into law by President Obama in 2015.

Academic accountability “was replaced with non-academic ‘multiple measures’ and a variety of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) measures.”

“With less focus on academics,” says Wurman, “disadvantaged students are likely not pushed as much, and the results follow.”

Wurman pans the argument of Common Core defenders who claim that bad NAEP scores are due to the lingering effects of the years-ago recession.

Education budgets “have fully recovered and more, and the great recession can’t be the forever-excuse for lousy system performance.”

Common Core has been a disaster and is destroying the futures of countless young people, which is reason enough to give parents and their children the broadest school-choice options available to escape the one-size-fits-all public school system and its top-down policy failures.

–Lance Izumi is the senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute and the author of the 2019 book Choosing Diversity: How Charter Schools Promote Diverse Learning Models and Meet the Diverse Needs of Parents and Children.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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