Despite Common Core’s Call for Increased State Standards, 26 States Lower Proficiency Bar

Paul E. Peterson,, Harvard University
Ashley Inman,, 707 332-1184, Education Next Communications Office

Despite Common Core’s Call for Increased State Standards, 26 States Lower Proficiency Bar

Recently, states’ definitions of what makes a student proficient in math and reading have been changing—in some cases for the better, in others for the worse. In a new Education Next article, “Despite Common Core, States Still Lack Common Standards,” authors Paul Peterson and Peter Kaplan find that even though 37 states and the District of Columbia (D.C.) received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education  as incentive to join the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) consortia and raise their standards in 2009, standards still declined in rigor in 26 states and D.C. between 2009 and 2011. In the remaining 24 states, standards increased in rigor. In the period since 2007, there has been little change in state standards overall.

Comparing the percentage of students who were identified by state assessments as proficient in math and reading in 4th and 8th grade with the percentage of students from the same state who were proficient on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the authors were able to see the variations in state standards across the country. The authors then assigned grades A through F to the states based on the strength of their standards relative to all other states.

The authors explain in the study that a high grade “indicates that the state’s definition of proficient embodies higher expectations for students. It is best thought of as a high grade for ‘truth in advertising.’” A full list of the states’ grades and trends over time can be found in Table 1 of the article, on

The CCSS were established by a national consortium sponsored by the National Governors Association.  The U.S. Department of Education has waived the requirements established by the federal law, No Child Left Behind, for states that promise education reforms including the adoption of CCSS, which commits the state to set common standards with high expectations for student performance. So far, 45 states have officially adopted CCSS.

The data indicate that some states, like Tennessee, have raised the proficiency bar. Between 2009 and 2011, Tennessee’s grade rose from an F to an A. Other states that improved their standards in that time frame by a full letter grade include West Virginia (C to a B+), New York (D to a B), Nebraska (F to a C), and Delaware
(C- to a B-).

However, these gains are offset by significant drops in proficiency standards between 2009 and 2011 in New Mexico (A to a B), Washington (A to a B), Hawaii (A to a C), Montana (B to a C), and Georgia (C- to an F).

Additionally, the authors found that 8th-grade reading and math standards have converged among the states since 2003. The authors explain that this could be seen as positive news for those looking to decrease disparity in standards across states, “were it not for the fact that 8th-grade standards also declined between 2003 and 2011.”

About the Authors

Paul Peterson is professor of government and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Peter Kaplan is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in government at Harvard University. The authors are available for interviews.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. For more information about Education Next, please visit:

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