A new report recently released by Education Next has discovered that since 2011, 45 states have raised their education standards for student proficiency in reading and math, with the greatest gains being seen between 2013 and 2015.
While in 2005 only six states earned an "A" and only three states received this grade in 2011, 24 out of the 49 states observed in the study scored an "A" in 2015.
"Two years ago we saw a little improvement and we made a big deal out of it, but basically we've been putting out this very pessimistic picture year after year," says Paul Peterson, co-author of the report and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University. "And then all of a sudden, bang-o! I did not anticipate this at all."
At the same time, the number of states to receive a "D" or "F" has gone down from 17 to 13, and only one "D+" was issued in 2015, reports Lauren Camera for US News.
State grades were determined by the size of the difference between the percentages of students considered to be proficient through the state test and the NAEP exam taken in the fourth and eighth grades for math and reading.
The largest jump in state standards was seen in the last two years as they had been established as part of the federal accountability program. In all, 36 states have implemented more rigorous standards since 2013, while five states have made them more relaxed. Seven states did not make any changes to their standards.
The average difference between NAEP scores and state proficiency exams has seen a drop from 30% to 10% since 2013. This is a significant improvement over the two-year period before that when the difference only saw a drop of 5 percentage points.
According to the report, the large increase in standards is mainly a result of education initiatives introduced by the Obama administration, including Race to the Top and waivers from No Child Left Behind that required states to adopt more rigorous standards like Common Core.
While the results appear good, digging deeper shows a different story. Of the nine states to earn an "A" in 2013, only New York, Pennsylvania, and Utah received this grade again in 2015. The remaining states, including Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, and Tennessee, all saw their standards fall in 2015, with North Carolina experiencing the highest decrease of 12.1 percentage points.
Texas received the lowest score, a D+. While the state announced plans to gradually add to their standards in an effort to allow their teachers time to adjust, these initiatives have only begun this year.
However, Jeffrey Weiss for The Dallas Morning News reports that the study does not actually say anything about how much Texas' students are learning when compared with students in other states, and that a separate report from several years ago, which used some of the same information, ranked the state at the top.
Reports from the Texas Education Agency show that students in the three largest ethnic groups in the state rank fourth or higher in the nation for fourth-grade NAEP math and sixth on NAEP eighth-grade math.
Study author Thomas Gift admitted that context matters.
"What we want are vigorous standards so we have a good sense of how well students are doing," he said.
"Ultimately we want to increase student performance. Implicit in our study is the belief that we need to have a good benchmark for measuring that."