Public education test results are dismal. Schools are failing NH children

NH public schools have a problem with test results. Common Core is a failure.

By Michelle Levell

The New Hampshire Department of Education just announced the results of the spring 2016 statewide assessments, noting that scores rose three percent from last year’s baseline. Results reflect three different assessment components: the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA), the Common Core (aka College and Career Readiness Standards) aligned statewide test; the Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE), a controversial integrated assessment tool used in eight districts last year; and the SAT now used as the 11th grade statewide assessment.

The state DOE has school and district profiles as well as statewide information available on their website. Look under the “Test Results” tab to find assessment scores. Districts are expected to release information soon to parents if they have not already done so. Scores are categorized into four levels: 1 substantially below proficient, 2 partially proficient, 3 proficient, and 4 proficient with distinction. The statewide averages are as follows with the percent representing the student population to achieve a level 3 or 4 in each subject area. Note that 2015 was the first time the state used the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA), and as of spring 2016 11th graders took the SAT as the statewide assessment.

2016 NH Statewide Assessment Scores

2015 Reading 2016 Reading 2015 Math 2016 Math
Grade 3 55% 56% 53% 57%
Grade 4 56% 57% 49% 51%
Grade 5 63% 63% 45% 48%
Grade 6 57% 59% 46% 47%
Grade 7 62% 62% 50% 52%
Grade 8 58% 62% 44% 47%
Grade 11 59% 66% 37% 40%


While NH students made modest improvements — and any improvement is good news — it is important to recognize that large percentages of our students are not achieving proficient levels. The state DOE defines proficient as those who “demonstrate minor gaps in the prerequisite knowledge and skills needed to perform successfully in instructional activities at the current grade level.”

Late  last week the state also announced the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, with particular emphasis on the science results. Because it has been in widespread use across the country for many years, the NAEP is commonly referred to as “the nation’s report card.” It tests a wide variety of subject areas including math, reading, writing, science, civics, US history, and more. NAEP participation for 4th and 8th grades in math and reading is required of states and districts that receive Title 1 funds, but unlike the statewide assessment, the NAEP is voluntary for individual students. Results are categorized as below basic, basic, proficient, or advanced, with similar definitionsNH uses for the SBA.

The 2015 NAEP science results are available here. The NAEP math and reading scores are posted here. New Hampshire’s percentage in each category is listed first with national averages in parentheses.

2015 NAEP Scores

Science Below Basic Basic Proficient Advanced
Grade 4 11% (25%) 38% (39%) 50% (36%) 1% (1%)
Grade 8 19% (33%) 35% (34%) 44% (31%) 2% (2%)
Grade 4 9% (19%) 40% (42%) 41% (32%) 10% (7%)
Grade 8 16% (30%) 37% (38%) 34% (24%) 12% (8%)
Grade 4 21% (32%) 33% (33%) 34% (27%) 12% (8%)
Grade 8 15% (25%) 40% (42%) 40% (29%) 5% (3%)


The NH Department of Education and Governor Hassan sent out a press releaseabout NH’s science scores. Dr. Virginia Barry said:

“These assessment results are further affirmation that New Hampshire schools, our students, our parents and especially our teachers are dedicated to the excellence in education we continue to promote.”

Governor Maggie Hassan said:

“I am encouraged by the impressive results of the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress and proud to see Granite State students, particularly those who experience disabilities, leading the nation in the important subject of science.”

We combined the state assessment and NAEP results for grades 4 and 8 in one table for an easier comparison. The percentage again represents the students achieving a proficient score or higher.

Comparison of Most Recent NH State Assessments and NAEP

SBA Reading NAEP Reading SBA Math NAEP Math
Grade 4 57% 46% 51% 51%
Grade 8 62% 45% 47% 46%


Although NH did notably better than the national average on NEAP’s 4th grade science test, achieving the highest average score in the country, only 51% are considered proficient. The NAEP is considered a challenging exam with more strict standards than the cut scores by many states. That is usually the reason given to explain why a state may have fewer students at the proficient level on NAEP in comparison to their own statewide assessment achievement level.

What do these test results show?

These tests show that generally our public schools are educating roughly half, 50.36%, of our students at proficient levels across grade levels and subject areas, even using the better results of this year’s Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA).

New Hampshire adopted Common Core (aka College and Career Readiness) Standards in 2010. While the state DOE repeatedly claims that local districts have the choice to use these standards and CC-aligned curriculum, nearly every district except Wakefield switched to these controversial standards. It is no surprise when the required tests and performance expectations are based on these standards.

After six years of using Common Core, is this the best we can achieve? Are our public schools providing an adequate education for our students? Is this what families want for their children’s education, or do they want better? While parents and taxpayers want our school children to be successful and NH students show improvement, are these tests good indicators of how well our public schools are performing? Tests are not the only way families and taxpayers can conclude if local schools are meeting their expectations, but in the data-driven and test-centric environment of education policy, test results often determine key decisions for school boards, legislators, and state agencies.

Why do these scores matter?

There are two reasons why parents and taxpayers, including those who do not enroll their children in the local public schools, may care about these results. Firstly, accountability is increasingly a hot topic within school choice. Schools are supposed to be responsive and meet the students’ needs. In the private school system, parents have the choice to withdraw their children from the school if the student’s needs are not satisfied or they are otherwise unhappy with the school. Too often students, particularly those of lower financial means, are trapped in their zip-code assigned schools and cannot afford options that are accessible to wealthier families. These results show that children of low-to-moderate means are disproportionately receiving a poorer quality education than their wealthier peers.

If we want to close the achievement gap, families need more educational optionsand not be limited to schools that are compelled to use one uniform set of standards and tests. Educational options also help scores improve for public schools and is a proven model for success for all our students.

As part of this discussion, it is also helpful to put various test results, such as the SBA and NAEP scores, in context. Charter schools face great scrutiny and must prove themselves because they receive state funding. Note that the Academy for Science and Design Charter School is recognized by Newsweek as a Top 50 Best American High School in 2015 and 2016. Also, NH homeschoolers are expected to conduct annual evaluations or testing, too, but as of 2012 they may keep the results private and not submit them to their local SAU or private school Participating Agency. If home ed students take standardized tests, they are expected to perform at or above the 40th percentile per RSA 193-A:6. This is a much higher standard than the one expected of our public school students.

The second reason these scores matter is because academic fit is a common reason families seek educational alternatives. Families often seek options when students are under-challenged or need help beyond what is usually provided in the classroom. Many find their students do better and are happier in different environments available at charter or private schools, or in home ed programs. If families do not believe their children’s academic needs are addressed in the local public schools, they may seek alternatives.

Why is Common Core a school choice issue?

Common Core (College and Career Readiness Standards) is a threat to school choice because the aligned high-stakes tests can readily drive standards and curriculum choices for public (including charters) and private schools as well as home education programs. Given that it has the potential for more standardization and uniformity of educational options, resisting it and the aligned testing, and informing families of Common Core’s short-comings are critical to protecting school choice.

What can families do?

Families can take action in different ways.

Demand better — Engage your local school board and question why they are using College and Career Readiness Standards and tests that are not providing a better education for our children.

Consider alternatives — If the local public school is not providing the education you want for your child, seek alternatives. There are more than 20 charter schools across the state. They do not charge tuition and have non-discriminatory enrollment practices. Many are holding Open House events in the coming months so this is a good time to determine if they would provide a better educational fit. Private schools can also be a good choice for many families. Many are hosting Open House events this time of year. To help put private schools within reach, consider applying to the Children’s Scholarship Fund-NH. They provide K-12 scholarships to qualifying families. The application period opens January 1 for the following school year.

Refuse the tests — Many parents across New Hampshire have refused their child’s participation in the statewide assessments. Some are concerned with the loss of instructional time. Others don’t believe there is value when results are released six months after the tests are taken. And others reject the top-down standards and affiliated tests. For information about how to refuse participation in the statewide assessments, refer to Starting the Year Right.

All our children – not just those from wealthy families – deserve an education that fits their needs and leads to success.