Despite Common Core’s Promise of Uniformity, AIR Study Finds State Achievement Standards Remain Out of Sync

Washington, D.C. – States embraced Common Core State Standards partly to establish more rigor and uniformity in what students should know to be on track for college or career as they approach high school graduation. But a new American Institutes for Research (AIR) study finds that achievement standards among states still vary widely, with only a handful as rigorous as the Proficient standard on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

The study examined achievement standards for college and career readiness in English and math in grades 4 and 8 for three groups aligned with the Common Core—the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), and ACT Aspire—as well as standards in states unaffiliated with these groups.

It found that just one non-affiliated state—Florida—had college-ready standards as stringent as the NAEP Proficient level for English and math in grades 4 and 8. Also, only one of the groups, PARCC, had standards comparable in difficulty to NAEP Proficient in both grades—and in that case, only in math.

“Prior to the advent of the Common Core, I used to say that 50 states going in 50 different directions is not a strategy for national success in a globally competitive world,” said Gary Phillips, the report’s author and an AIR vice president and Institute Fellow. “We may not be going in 50 different directions anymore, but we do not have enough states setting high college-ready standards.”

The Common Core was partly a response to the dizzying array of proficiency definitions states created to comply with the strict accountability regimen of No Child Left Behind. Working with states, the Common Core’s developers created a set of content standards designed to ensure that all students left high school ready for college or work.

The two original testing consortia—PARCC and Smarter Balanced—developed assessments and achievement standards designed to measure the Common Core content standards at each grade. The goal was to establish a more uniform idea of what proficiency means across states. While 45 states and the District of Columbia signed on to the Common Core, the movement sparked a significant political backlash, resulting in three rather than two testing groups. Many states broke off and created their own unaffiliated standards and tests.

The AIR report does not examine Common Core content standards, but rather the achievement standards that define proficiency levels on assessments. The report not only found a mismatch among the achievement standards embraced by the various groups, but also considerable distance in many cases between proficiency defined by the states or one of the consortia, and NAEP’s definition of proficiency.

One advantage of mapping state achievement standards onto NAEP is that the NAEP scale can serve as a common metric for comparing the achievement standards of Smarter Balanced, PARCC and ACT Aspire since all states participate in NAEP. Phillips obtained the NAEP equivalent of each Consortium’s achievement standard, then compared them to NAEP equivalents across the consortia.

The study looked at standards in 18 states that administered the Smarter Balanced Test in 2015: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin. (The Virgin Islands did not participate in NAEP in 2015, and Wisconsin and Missouri were excluded from calculations for English language arts because their administration deviated from the Smarter Balanced blueprint.) The study also examined all 12 jurisdictions that administered PARCC in 2015—Arkansas, Colorado, District of Columbia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, and New Mexico, Ohio and Rhode Island—and the two states that administered the ACT Aspire test, Alabama and South Carolina.

The study’s findings include:

  • Smarter Balanced college-ready standards compare in difficulty to the NAEP Basic levels.
  • Smarter Balanced college-ready standards are significantly below PARCC college-ready standards, by about one-quarter of a standard deviation (a statistical term denoting the amount of variation from the average).
  • Smarter Balanced college-ready grade 8 standards are comparable to ACT Aspire college-ready grade 8 standards. However, for grade 4, the Smarter Balanced college-ready standard is significantly below the ACT Aspire college-ready standard for English, but significantly above the ACT Aspire college-ready standard for math.
  • PARCC college-ready standards are comparable in difficulty to the NAEP Basic level for English and the NAEP Proficient level for math.
  • PARCC college-ready standards are comparable in difficulty to the ACT Aspire college-ready standard for English in grade 4. However, PARCC standards are significantly above ACT Aspire college-ready standards for grade 8 English, grade 4 math and grade 8 math.
  • ACT Aspire college-ready standards are comparable in difficulty to the NAEP Basic levels.
  • Only a handful of unaffiliated states have college-readiness standards that map to the NAEP Proficient level:
    1. Grade 4 English—Florida and New York
    2. Grade 8 English—Florida, Kansas, and New York
    3. Grade 4 math—Florida and Kansas
    4. Grade 8 math—Alaska, Florida, Kansas, New York and Pennsylvania

The full report, National Benchmarks for State Achievement Standards: State and National Education Performance Standards, is available at

About AIR
Established in 1946, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of health, education and workforce productivity. For more information, visit


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