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HIGHER STANDARDS, HIGHER ACHIEVEMENT: New Report Finds Standards-Based Reform Efforts Benefit High-Poverty Students

States committed to standards-based reform have seen the greatest improvements in learning outcomes for students from low-income families, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP), an independent nonpartisan policy institute. Moreover, states that have abandoned or otherwise not embraced standards-based reform completely have demonstrated fewer gains or experienced declines in the academic performance of their poorest students, according to the CAP report.

The report, Lessons from State Performance on NAEP: Why Some High-Poverty Students Score Better than Others, examines the relationship between the academic achievement of students from low-income families and states’ implementation of standards-based reforms, such as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). According to the report, standards-based reform generally refers to educational practices built around a set of academic standards that “specify what students should know and be able to do in each grade level and subject” and that “guide educators’ work in the classroom, helping teachers set goals for students.”

The CAP report finds that “improvements in state standards policies were associated with academic growth for students from low-income families, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP].” Specifically, the study examines the performance of fourth- and eighth-grade students on the reading and math NAEP exams for their respective grades. States that demonstrated stronger implementation of standards-based reform experienced greater gains on two of the four NAEP exams: fourth-grade math and eighth-grade reading. (The study does not find a connection between standards-based reform and student scores on the other two NAEP tests: fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math.)

For example, states such as Florida, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Washington, DC, that “have thoughtfully pushed standards” saw their NAEP scores increase by more than 10 points during the past twelve years, the report notes. By contrast, “[t]here are about a dozen states that have shown less than a 5-point [sic] gain for low-income students, on average, including Kansas, Iowa, Idaho, Montana, and North and South Dakota,” the report says. “Generally speaking, these states appear to have not embraced standards-based reform fully.”

Between 2013 and 2015, student performance on the NAEP declined nationally in fourth- and eighth-grade math and eighth-grade reading, while fourth-grade reading scores remained flat. Many critics of standards-based reform blamed the CCSS for the dip.

But the CAP report notes that it is too soon to accurately gauge the impact of the CCSS. So the CAP study takes a longer-term view and examines the relationship between standards-based reform and the academic achievement of students from low-income families during the preceding decade. The researchers measured student achievement through average NAEP scores from 2003 through 2013 and measured changes between each biennial administration of the test.

To quantify differences between how states implemented academic standards, the researchers assigned each state a “policy implementation score” based on various indicators that measured the quality of a state’s academic standards, assessments, accountability systems, and equity in school funding. States earned higher scores for having (1) grade-specific academic standards in English language arts, math, science, and social studies; (2) aligned assessments that included open-ended response questions; and (3) accountability systems that rewarded high-performing schools and sanctioned low-performing ones. The researchers used regression analysis to compare the relationship between the states’ policy implementation scores and the NAEP scores of high-poverty students over time.

The researchers caution that their findings do not establish a direct cause-and-effect connection between standards-based reform and student achievement but simply demonstrate a positive relationship between the two factors. Furthermore, the study does not account for all factors that potentially could impact student academic performance or the quality of policy implementation.

Nonetheless, the report suggests that “states that have embraced standards-driven reforms over the past decade have enabled low-income students to perform at much higher levels.” Adopting and implementing standards-based reform is just the first step, though, the report notes. If states want to sustain students’ academic gains, they must help teachers master the new standards, develop the instructional techniques that support those standards, and craft high-quality curriculum materials to guide instruction, the report adds.

“One of the most important aspects of standards-based reforms such as the Common Core is that such standards raise expectations for all students,” says Catherine Brown, vice president of education policy at CAP. “Improving testing practices and building instructional capacity are two ways that states can help their districts, schools, and teachers implement the Common Core standards and therefore raise the bar for student achievement.”

Lessons from State Performance on NAEP: Why Some High-Poverty Students Score Better than Others is available at

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