High Standards Help Struggling Students: New Evidence

Charts You Can Trust | November 15, 2012
Chart From "High Standards Help Struggling Students: New Evidence"

The Common Core State Standards, adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia, promise to raise achievement in English and mathematics through rigorous standards that promote deeper learning. But while most policymakers, researchers, and educators have embraced these higher standards, some question the fairness of raising the academic bar on students who are already struggling.

Do higher standards hurt struggling students? High Standards Help Struggling Students: New Evidence, argues that the answer to that question is “no.” In the analysis, Education Sector analysts Constance Clark and Peter Cookson Jr. use state-by-state NAEP data to examine the effect of high standards on student achievement. They find there is no evidence that high standards have hurt low-achieving students. In fact, they found that higher standards have probably helped.

Clark and Cookson compare struggling students ─ those who score at “below basic” levels on the NAEP in reading and math ─ across states with low and high standards in 2003 and 2011. To define the rigor of the standards, they use a measure proposed by researchers Paul E. Peterson and Frederick M. Hess that evaluates standards based on the cut scores states use to set proficiency categories. The higher the cut score, the higher the state’s standards are judged to be. Here is what Clark and Cookson found on the extremes of the Peterson-Hess rating:

  • In fourth-grade math, the percentage of below basic students, on average, declined 26 percent among high-standards states and 20 percent in low-standards states. In reading, the decline was narrower, with a 10 percent reduction in high-standards states, and 9 percent in low-standards states.
  • In eighth-grade math, the reduction in the percentage of below basic students was 23 percent in high-standards states. In low-standards states, the decline was 14 percent. In eighth grade reading, the decline was 10 percent in both cases.

Overall, in nearly all cases, Clark and Cookson find that higher standards help below basic students.

Equally significant, Clark and Cookson challenge the notion that a state’s economic health contributes to the achievement gap. Controlling for these economic conditions, they found no evidence that below basic students do better in rich states than in poor states, regardless of standards. In other words, all students benefit from the implementation of higher academic standards.

As the nation anticipates the implementation of the Common Core Standards, Clark and Cookson argue, “There is no reason for states to dilute the strength of the standards with lower expectations of performance.” High standards bring out the best in students.