NAEP Math Scores Insignificantly Affected by the Common Standards


The Common Core State Standards (Common Standards) have been implemented for about four years. According to the developers (the folks over at Achieve) and it’s billionaire financiers, such as Bill Gates, the Common Standards are benchmarked against high performing international standards, and should result in higher achievement scores for American students.

According to Achieve, the Common Standards are guidelines for what every student should know and be able to do in math and English language arts from kindergarten through 12th grade.

According to proponents, the Common Standards should result in higher achievement scores and an increase in the nation’s ability to compete globally. Proponent-in-chief, billionaire Bill Gates, said in an interview with ABC News, “that in a decade, the scores and competence for U.S. students in math can be improved. This is going to be a big win for education.”

A recent report based on peer-reviewed studies in the Brookings 2014 Brown Center Report on American Education sheds light on these claims. The results will be a disappointment for some.

The 2014 Brookings report includes sections on the PISA international – Shanghai controversy, homework, and the Common Core. I’m focusing only on the Common Core section in this article.

CCSS Shows No Signs of Boosting Math Scores

There has been a lot of talk that the U.S. needs new standards to ratchet up our student’s abilities in mathematics (reading & science, too). The Brown Report provides empirical support to find out how the Common Standards are affecting American student’s 8th grade math scores.

According to an earlier Brown study (2012), it was predicted that the new Common Standards would not affect student learning. The 2014 study confirms this. Here is the concluding paragraph in the 2014 Brown Report.

The 2012 Brown Center Report predicted, based on an empirical analysis of the effects of state standards, that the CCSS will have little to no impact on student achievement.  Supporters of the Common Core argue that strong, effective implementation of the standards will sweep away such skepticism by producing lasting, significant gains in student learning. So far, at least— and it is admittedly the early innings of a long ballgame—there are no signs of such an impressive accomplishment.

Math Scores Lagged During the CCSS Rollout

The NAEP collects achievement scores every two years for 9, 13, and 17-year-old students. The graph in Figure 1 is the trend of 8th grade math achievement from 1990 – 2013. The average score in 1990 was , while average math score in 2013 is 285.

The trend line does not show a significant change in the slope of line during the time the Common Standards were implemented (the area on the line encircled in red.  One would have expected a bump during this period.  It isn’t there.

It turns out that a little math will tell the story. Between 1990 – 2013 there was a 22 point increase in 8th grade math. Over the 23 years this amounts to about a 1 point increase per year. However, the average score increase from 2009 – 2013, the years the Common Core has been used, has only increased 0.30 points per year, much less than before the roll out of the Common Core.

Figure 1. NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores, 1990-2013. Source. U.S. Department of Education


Digging Deeper

The Brown Report on the Common Core begins with an examination of research at Michigan State University by William H. Schmidt and Richard T. Houang.  These researchers published a study in 2012 that included an analysis of the math standards in place in all 50 states in the 2008 – 2009 about how they stacked up to the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics.  The question was how well do the state standards align with the CCSSM in terms of congruence, focus and rigor.  (Schmidt, W. H. & Houang, R.T. Curricular Coherence and the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics Educational Researcher November 2012 41: 294-308). 

Table 1 shows the results of the analysis of state math standards and their consistency with the CCSSM in 2008.  The table shows five categories based on the degree of concurrence with the Common Standards in math.  Those rated high (5) include states such Alabama, Georgia, Michigan.  Those rated low (1) include Arizona, Kansas, New Jersey.   Schmidt and Houang did an analysis to find if there was a relationship between achievement scores on the NAEP math test and the degree of congruence of the state standards with the CCSS in math.  There was no relationship to achievement.  However, their analyses did show two groups of states (Group A and Group B) that did show significant coefficients for congruence.

Table 1. Existing State Standards' Consistency with the Common Core Math Standards. Loveless, T. How Well Are American Students Learning. The Brown Center Report on American Education, March 2014, Volume 3, Number 3, p. 28.
Table 1. Existing State Standards’ Consistency with the Common Core Math Standards. Source: Schmidt, W.H. (2012), Presentation at the National Press Club, Extracted from Loveless, T. How Well Are American Students Learning. The Brown Center Report on American Education, March 2014, Volume 3, Number 3, p. 28.

Brown Analysis

According to the Michigan State study, states

adopting the Common Core in math should expect to see an increase on NAEP 8th grade math scores. The Brown research extended the Michigan study by looking specifically at gain scores at the state level since 2009. By using NAEP math scores for 2011 and 2013, the Brown researchers had a way to test the predictive ability of the earlier Michigan study.

We should realize that this is only four years into the adoption of the Common Core. However, the findings ought to provide some feedback on the current status of the Common Core, and help us predict future effects of the standards on math achievement,

Table 2 presents state NAEP changes organized by the Michigan rating system of congruence with Common Core math standards. Recall, the a rating of “5” meant that those states were most like the CCSS math standards, those with a “1” were most divergent from the Common Core math standards. Accordingly, we would expect that there would be a trend in the gain scores favoring the higher rated states vs the lower rated states.

Table 2 shows there is no trend or systematic relationship between the Michigan ratings and changes in NAEP math scores. Note that states that had very divergent standards from the Common Core actually gained more than states that were rated most like the Common Standards.  As Loveless says, the data are lumpy.  When one expects high scores, the results are low scores, and visa versa.  There is no pattern in these findings.

Table 5. State NAEP Changes, by Michigan Ratings of Congruence with CCSS, (in scale score points, 2009 - 2013).
Table 2. State NAEP Changes, by Michigan Ratings of Congruence with CCSS, (in scale score points, 2009 – 2013).

How did the Common Core Math Implementation Fare?

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education survey the states to find out how the Common Standards reform was doing and being implemented.  The survey asked states if they had: (1) adopted the CCSS; (2) provided, guided, or funded professional development on the CCSS; (3) provided curriculum/instructional materials for the CCSS; and (4) worked with a consortium to develop assessments aligned with the CCSS (Brown Study, p. 31).

In the 2014 Brown study, they researchers used the survey results to categorized the state’s implementation rating as strong, medium, or non-adopters, as shown in Table 3.   Note that the strong implementors of the Common Core made the largest gains, while non-adopters showed the smallest gains.

Table 3. Changes in NAEP Scores (in scale score points) by Implementation of CCSS. Extracted from Loveless, T. How Well Are American Students Learning. The Brown Center Report on American Education, March 2014, Volume 3, Number 3, p.32.

However, if we compare the gains shown during the four years of CCSS adoption of math standards to the entire history of NAEP scores, we find that during the transition period, scores have only gained 0.33 points, where the gain score per year over the entire history of NAEP math testing is more than “1” point per year.


Some will use these results to claim the Common Core is a failure. Others will say that more time is needed to “test” the new standards. Others might claim that the standards do not have much affect on how students do on NAEP tests.

In an earlier post, I reported that Brown (2012) researchers concluded that we should not expect much from the Common Core.  In an interesting discussion of the implications of their findings, Tom Loveless, the author of the report, cautions us to be careful about not being drawn into thinking that standards represent a kind of system of “weights and measures.”  Loveless tells us that standards’ reformers use the word—benchmarks—as a synonym for standards.  And he says that they are used too often.  In science education, for example, we’ve had a long history of using the word benchmarks, and Loveless reminds us that there are not real, or measured benchmarks in any content area.  Yet, when you read the standards—common core or science—there is the implication we really know–almost in a measured way–what standards should be met at a particular grade level.

Loveless also makes a strong point when he says the entire system of education is “teeming with variation.”  To think that creating a set of common core standards will reduce this variation between states or within a state simply will not succeed. As he puts it, the common core (a kind of intended curriculum) sits on top of the implemented and achieved curriculum.  The implemented curriculum is what teachers do with their students day-to-day.  It is full of variation within a school.  Two biology teachers in the same school will get very different results for a lot of different factors.  But as far as the state is concerned, the achieved curriculum is all that matters.  The state uses high-stakes tests to determine whether schools met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

As the Brown report suggests, we should not depend on the common core or the Next Generation Science Standards having any effect on students’ achievement.  The report ends with this statement:

The nation will have to look elsewhere for ways to improve its schools.

What do think of the research reported here about the Common Core?

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University