New York State Grades 3-8 Test Scores Released: “Flat” or “Modest Gains.” All With a Yawn

The city was rapidly emptying as the caravans to the Hamptons, Fire Island, the Jersey Shore and the Catskills had begun. Principals were in the middle of their two week vacation and parents savoring the last few weeks before the end of sleep-away camp: the New York State ELA/math test scores were released.

The state has been artfully hinting about the scores for weeks and the Thursday afternoon release was neither a bang nor a whimper, maybe a yawn.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch and State Education Commissioner John B. King, Jr. today released the results … Statewide, the percentage of students scoring at the proficient level and above in math rose from 31.2 to 35.8 across all grades combined. The percentage of students scoring at the partial proficiency level and above also rose in math, from 66.9 to 69.6 percent. Students made slight progress in ELA, (the percentage of students scoring at the proficient level and above rose 31.3 to 31.4 percent across all grades combined), though progress varied across the need/resource categories. The percentage of students scoring at the partial proficiency level and above in ELA also rose slightly, from 69 to 70 percent. Encouraging gains were made by Black and Latino students, particularly in New York City.

Please note an important change, students who score below proficient, who we used to say failed the test, are now referred to as scoring at the “partial proficiency level.”

The ELA scores were characterized as “flat” across the state and in the NYC and the other large cities as showing “modest gains.”

Year-to-year performance increases were largest in New York City and Yonkers, and New York City’s performance approached statewide levels.

o Buffalo: the percentage of students scoring at Level 3 and above improved from 12.1 in 2013 to 12.2 in 2014.
o New York City: the percentage of students scoring at Level 3 and above improved from 27.4 in 2013 to 29.4 in 2014.
o Syracuse: the percentage of students scoring at Level 3 and above stayed the same, at 8.5, from 2013 to 2014.
o Rochester: the percentage of students scoring at Level 3 and above improved from 5.6 in 2013 to 5.7 in 2014.
o Yonkers: the percentage of students scoring at Level 3 and above improved from 16.9 in 2013 to 18.7 in 2014.

What the state does not explain is the impact of opt-outs, students whose parents opted their children out of taking the exams. The Wall Street Journal reports the number of opt-outs rose from 10-15,000 last year to 55-60,000 this year. How did the opt-outs impact the scores? Were they students with disabilities who had low scores last year? In other words did the scores reflection “addition by subtraction”? Or, conversely, are the opt-outs kids who did well on the tests last year and dragged down district scores this year? Were the opt-outs concentrated in certain areas of the city and the state?

The state did not make any information available on the opt-outs.

The scores are not surprising – the 2013 tests were brand new tests based on the brand new common core standards, the state produced curriculum modules were ragged and the professional development varied widely from school district to school district and from school to school.

We can look at scores from three perspectives:

The Cumulative Impact: Each year teachers will become more confident and more skilled in teaching lessons that reflect the common core standards and each year schools will have more and more books and materials that reflect the standards. The scores will incrementally increase each year.

The Test Sophistication Impact: Test prep drives test scores – the ability of teachers to teach to the test, to prepare students for the particular type of questions to expect on the test. Each year the test prep materials will improve and students and teachers will become more familiar with the tests – test prep rather than the day-to-day instruction will drive high scores. Cynical, but the current tests drive test prep.

The Test Creation – Standards-Setting Process: Both the creation of the test, aka, the crafting of the questions and the process to create the scoring level, known as standards-setting, is carried out totally in the dark. This year the state only released half the questions – before 2013 all the questions were released. The Technical Report, the data which actually establishes the validity and reliability of the test is not released in a timely manner and is sharply redacted – we don’t know whether the test actually tests what it purports. In other words, is the state “massaging” the process?

A bright spot: New York City did show gains above the gains of other large cities and is approaching scores at the state-wide level. Did New York City do a better job of professional development? Is the quality of teachers higher in the city? Or, is it something about our changing student population?

The purpose of the common core standards and the testing regimen is to raise the quality of instruction and produce more “college and career ready” students. In 1997 the Regents took a dramatic step. They began the phase-out of the Regents Competency Test (RCT) and move to a single Regents diploma. Most of the students in the state graduated high school with an RCT diploma – called the local diploma, the very same “Sturm und Drang” that characterized the move to the single diploma. Did it produce more “college ready” students? Over the dozen years of the phase-in of the single diploma commissioners came and went – who knows?

In fact, although we casually throw around the term “college and career ready” we don’t have a firm definition. We say “grades of 75 on the English Regents and 80 on the Algebra 1 Regents” defines college ready – although we don’t have much supporting data, and, career ready has no definition – we tend to associate it with Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs.

What the state continues to ignore is comparing poverty indices to pupil achievement – the higher the level of poverty the lower the achievement on tests. Charter schools pare away the higher achieving high poverty kids which negatively impacts the neighborhood schools.

As the November gubernatorial election nears the Republicans will hammer away at testing and the common core; when school opens parent anger may or may not subside. The Congress will not reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and, if the Republicans gain control of the Senate we will probably see a flood of legislation limiting the authority of the US Department of Education.

The common core has entered the political arena.

Unemployment, underemployment, poverty, single parent households and gang-crime infested neighborhoods exist side by side to high-rise, high income buildings. Bill de Blasio’s “a tale of two cities” did not disappear upon his election.

Yes, we must continue improve our craftsmanship, continue to strive to attract and retain the “best and the brightest” school leaders and principals; however, we cannot ignore the worlds that house too many kids.

Scores make headlines for a day or two – they don’t change the worlds our kids live in day after day.

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One response to “New York State Grades 3-8 Test Scores Released: “Flat” or “Modest Gains.” All With a Yawn

  1. I dont know that Common Core will ever be the answer to creating more college ready students.As a matter of fact in talking with a few college recruiters,what Im hearing is that most of their mandated summer remedial classes for in coming freshman are filled by students from Common Core Driven school districts. These remedial classes are in basic writing skills and related LA skills. The conclusion I drew from this info is that Common Core is at the very least not the answer to anything that can be positively identified within the realm of student growth and development.

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