Standardized test scores in New York have taken a plunge after the adoption of Common Core Standards, with fewer than 26% receiving passing reading scores and 32% passing the math exam, dealing a blow to supporters of the curricular regime in the first year that the state has administered the more rigorous exams based on Common Core.
This represents a substantial decline compared to scores from last year. A New York Times editorial believes, however, these drops are a natural consequence of “dropping the charade” – adopting standards that make it harder both to hide flaws in instructional approaches and make students appear more proficient than they are.
A large part of the drop can be attributed to the fact that teachers are still coming to grips with how to effectively teach harder concepts that are part of Common Core. Still, the scores prove that the path to improved student outcomes will be a long and tough one.
The Common Core standards are aimed at helping children acquire sophisticated reasoning skills. The goal is to move the schools away from rote learning — and those weak, multiple choice bubble tests — to a writing-intensive curriculum that emphasizes problem-solving skills. Since the new tests require different and stronger skills than the old ones, the state has discouraged direct comparisons of results from the two.
Nevertheless, the data show that about 31 percent of the state’s students in third through eighth grades met or exceeded the proficiency standard in language arts. That is down from about 55 percent in 2012 and 77 percent in 2009, when the state tests were easier.
Among the problems still in need of a solution are closing achievement gaps. Exam data shows that there remains a substantial difference in achievement level between white students and their black and Hispanic peers. The Times provides a particularly sobering example in language arts: while more than half of white students were proficient in the subject, only 16% of African-American students were proficient.
In New York City, the release of scores has been especially controversial due to the ongoing mayoral election season. Those in the fight for the Democratic nomination are working to win the support of the city’s many unions, including the teachers union – which has been fighting against many of the education policies of current mayor Michael Bloomberg. The temptation to blame him for the decline and curry favor with the teachers is strong, although the testing mandate comes from the state, not city lawmakers.
Still, blaming Bloomberg will prove difficult especially in light of the fact that NYC students outperformed those from other cities around the state by a healthy margin. In math, the city’s 30% passage rate was exactly double that of the next NY urban district, Yonkers. As Corinne Lestch, Ben Chapman and Jennifer Fermino of the New York Daily News point out, in English, the gap was narrower – 26% to Yonkers’ 16% – but still substantial.
State Education Commissioner John King said the scores ‘do not reflect a drop in performance, but rather a raising of standards to reflect college and career readiness in the 21st century.’
“These proficiency scores do not reflect a drop in performance, but rather a raising of standards to reflect college- and career-readiness in the 21st century,” King said.
“It’s frustrating to see our children struggle. But we can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed by frustration,” he added, calling the dismal scores a “new starting point on a road map to future success.”
The more rigorous exams were taken by about 450,000 city students in April. The tests are mandated by the federal government.
They’ve attracted so much controversy — even leading to some parents having their children boycott the tests in protest — because the results will be used in decisions over whether to close schools, fire teachers and promote or hold back students.
The drops in scores and the political fallout will serve as an example to states that are set to adopt Common Core-based tests in the coming year. Right after the scores were publicly released, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did his best to calm the waters by reassuring families, politicians and educators that the decline was not the result of lower performance.
Duncan is moving quickly to assuage people’s worries in part as other states’ commitments to Common Core adoption have been wavering. Even though 46 have made some kind of a move towards adoption, a number of them, including North Carolina, have made noises about pulling out or have taken steps to do so. Duncan supports Common Core and doesn’t want New York’s lower scores to trigger a stampede.
He does have precedent on his side as he attempts to make his case, however. Last year, Kentucky became the first state to administer Common Core-compliant tests and education officials there experienced a decline similar to the one in New York.
A similar drop of about 30 percent in scores was seen in Kentucky, the first state to test under the Common Core standards, which were only rolled out widely this year to bring uniformity to the hodgepodge of educational goals that had varied greatly from state to state. The federal government was not involved in the state-led effort to develop them but has encouraged the project as a way to better prepare students for college and careers.
“We’re raising the bar for the K-12 schools in this country. This will be a hard transition but it’s really important for kids,” said Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “States should recognize that it’s not a terrible thing to have this adjustment and that we should begin seeing growth.”