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Five years after Common Core, a mysterious spike in failure rate among NY high school students

Potential signs of long-lasting problems for low-achieving students

Photo of Jill Barshay

Proof Points

Five years after teaching to Common Core standards in New York State, 60 percent of English Language Learners failed the algebra Regents exam. They were part of a mysterious 13,000-student spike in the number of students failing the exam in 2017-18.

Back in 2013, when New York was one of the first states in the nation to adopt Common Core standards and administer tougher tests, children’s test scores initially plummeted. Then, as teachers had time to develop lesson plans and adjust to new curricula, student performance began to improve. A similar pattern seemed to be emerging among the state’s high school students, who are required to pass a series of exams, called Regents, to earn a diploma. After an initial drop in pass rates among eighth and ninth graders on a Common Core algebra exam in 2014-15, scores improved.

But now, after five years of high schools teaching to the Common Core standards (now slightly revamped and called Next Generation Learning Standards in New York), there’s a sudden spike in the high-school failure rate. More than 13,000 more students failed the algebra Regents exam in the most recent 2017-18 school year compared to the previous year, pushing the failure rate up from 25 percent to 30 percent, according to a December 2018 report by education policy consultant David Rubel. In the English Language Arts or reading exam, the number of failing students grew by more than 12,000 students, increasing the failure rate from 16 percent to 21 percent.

“It’s odd that there would be a decline at this point,” said Morgan Polikoff, a professor at the University of Southern California’s school of education and an expert in assessments.  “Most often the trend is that a new exam is implemented, there’s a ‘dip’ in performance. I don’t like calling it a dip because it’s a different test so it’s not really comparable. And then scores gradually increase over time.”

It’s unclear whether New York is an anomaly or whether other states with raised standards may soon experience a similar deterioration among older students. In California, scores dipped among 11th graders in the spring of 2018, four years after the introduction of Common Core aligned exams. Meanwhile, younger grades continued to post progress.

Some analysts have suggested that California’s high schoolers didn’t try hard on the exam because the scores didn’t matter for grades or college. But in New York, the exams are necessary for high school graduation. The question is why more students are struggling now.

Part of the answer might be small shifts in the high school population. Even if Common Core approaches are superior and teachers have mastered the new material, average scores could fall and the failure rate could rise when the share of low-performing students increases.

In New York, the number of “English Language Learners” in high school has been growing, according to Rubel. That’s a designation given to recent immigrants who don’t speak English fluently, and, historically, they tend to score below average. Indeed, 60 percent of English Language Learners failed the algebra Regents and 63 percent failed the ELA or reading Regents in 2017-18. English Language Learners accounted for 3,000 of the 13,000 additional students who failed the algebra test in 2017-18. But demographic changes don’t seem to explain why the other 10,000 kids failed.

These test results are pointing out that some students are having greater trouble learning the material than they used to. One hypothesis suggested by USC’s Polikoff is that low-achieving kids who were introduced to Common Core standards midway through their educational life might have been harmed in the sometimes rocky transition. The high school students who took the Regents last year were in third, fourth and fifth grades when Common Core was first introduced to them. Those are critical years to learn and master multiplication, division and fractions. Average and high-performing kids were able to cope with the new approaches.

“There’s pretty decent evidence that low performers didn’t do great in the transition to Common Core.” said Polikoff. “Common Core is more conceptual with math. If you don’t have the basics down, and the teacher is teaching in ways that seem more confusing, you could be worse off.”

Related: New York experience shows that Common Core tests can come at a cost for underprivileged students

Low-achieving children who are exposed to Common Core instruction from the start in kindergarten may test better in high school in the years to come. Perhaps this problem will be a transitional one that will work itself through the system in the next five years.

But Rubel argues that low-achieving students may continue to need more support with Common Core, especially students with disabilities and English Language Learners. He reasons  it would be straightforward to target extra support and tutoring to high school students who obtain the lowest “1” score on their eighth-grade state assessments, indicating that the child is not on track to be college ready.

“On day one, in ninth grade, every high school knows exactly how many students aren’t going to pass,” said Rubel. “You have a prediction system in place. Are we doing everything we can to give the kids who are behind the extra support they need?”

New York is one of a dozen states to require students to pass exit exams to graduate from high school. This past year’s class of 2018 was the first group of seniors who had to take the Common Core version of the algebra exam. (Previous classes had the option to take an earlier version of the math test.) A big question is whether the spike in Regents exam failures will translate into a first drop in the state’s graduation rate in 17 years. Those figures are expected to be released later in January 2019. But Rubel predicts that new graduation options, and a looser appeals system for students who fail, will keep the graduation rate steady.

This story about Common Core tests was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth… See Archive

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I notice that, in the past ten years few adults who speak publicly for a living know how use the word "fewer." They use "less" in error. I would guess that the number of adults making this error is 98%. "Different from" / "different than" is about the same. General communication ability is definitely in decline in all public interactions. It seems that a large portion of the public is "scripted" and when an interchange is "off script" it becomes obvious that the interlocutor can not follow basic logic and does not know how to engage in polite dialog (preferring to parrot memorized scripts).

- from Robert St. Estephe, Jan 15, 2019

I think you are failing to overlook the effect of the Reader/Writer Workshop approach to literacy that was pushed under Bloomberg and Farina through the Lucy Calkins Reading and Writing College. I have observed it labeled as "balanced literacy" but it is far from that. In fact, it is a model of whole language literacy. This method of literacy bodes very poorly for the most at-risk students. Students with few experiences to early literacy, students from poverty, students with exceptional needs, students who read and speak English as a Second Language are suffering long-term because of these methods.

- from Elizabeth Hodgens, Jan 15, 2019

Since 2009, when the Common Core math standards (CCMS) were written, scientists who study how the brain solves problems have reached consensus on many recommendations on how math should be taught. Unfortunately, in many cases, the 2009 CCMS call for the opposite of what science in 2019 recommends.

Examples? The CC math standards (CCMS) do not ask students to be able to recall from memory ANY subtraction or division facts. Cognitive scientists are emphatic that ALL fundamental math facts must be recallable “with automaticity,” quickly and accurately from memory.

The CCMS ask students to do multistep calculations in first grade, but do not ask that they know their addition facts until the end of second grade. Cognitive science is clear that, due to measured limits in the “working memory” where the brain solves problems, most students will not be able to do such calculations before fundamentals are in memory. This means by the end of first grade, a large percentage of students are likely to have decided they are “not good at math,” and following years of math become quite difficult to teach.

The CCMS call for students to experiment with different algorithms for arithmetic operations for a year each, then learn the “standard algorithms” in the next year. Science says if this sequence is followed, the earlier experiments will “interfere” with remembering the steps of the standard algorithms.

For many other ways science says the CCMS ask students to solve problems in ways their brains cannot do, search for the “chemistry and cognition blog ” and see Post #15.

In 2019, it is clear that either the CCMS will need to be revised to come into alignment with how science says the brain works, or the U.S. will continue to have difficulty graduating STEM majors.

- from Eric (rick) Nelson, Jan 15, 2019

Dear Editor,

In response to your article regarding the drop in New York high school scores, has anyone considered that Common Core just isn't that good? David Coleman isn't an educator. Perhaps it's not the change in education half way through the lives of these students but instead it's just not good material and standardized mandated state testing is antithetical to learning. Just sayin'.

- from Nina M Bishop, Jan 16, 2019

Can you study and write a response to the newly released (April 2019) "Effects of States’ Implementation of College- and Career-Ready Standards on

Student Achievement" report? I have read analytical responses by right-leaning media. I would like to compare an analytical response from Hechinger.

Thank you for considering.

- from Kareen Smith, Jun 01, 2019