Last month, the state of New York administered English Language Arts and mathematics assessments to students in grades 3-8. For the first time, the assessments were aligned with the Common Core State Standards, a set of standards for what students should know at each grade level in these subjects that 45 states across the country have adopted.
Until now, only Kentucky has administered state assessments aligned with the new standards, and the results were frightening: sharp declines across the state in the percentage of students who were classified as proficient at grade level in both English Language Arts and mathematics. In Kentucky, proficiency rates fell by approximately 30 percentage points from 2011 to 2012, although the number varied across demographic subgroups.
These declines reflect the distance between prior expectations for what children should know, and the new, higher expectations, which have upped the ante considerably, asking students to display mastery of skills and content previously taught two or three grades later in the state curriculum. No one knows whether the implementation of the Common Core standards will result in improved learning for students, but that’s the premise.
What does this mean for New York City? It’s a question of great interest as the city girds itself for a campaign to succeed Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has held sway over the city’s public schools for a dozen years. Test scores and other quantitative indicators—though of limited value for informing fine-grained decisions about students, teachers and schools—can serve as a site for taking stock of where we are, and where we might wish to be.
I’ve made some projections of New York City’s likely performance on the new state assessments, based on what happened in Kentucky. I’d like to say that I used a fancy, proprietary statistical algorithm to do this, but that would be a fib. Instead, I used the statistical software of choice of highly regarded Harvard economists: Microsoft Excel.
Figure 1 below shows proficiency rates in English Language Arts in New York City; the 2012 values are actual values, and the 2013 ones are my projections. If we were to look solely at the 2012 numbers, the picture would be mixed, but positive. Overall, 47 percent of students in the tested grades in New York City were classified as proficient in English. To be sure, there are still substantial differences across demographic groups, with just under 40 percent of Black and Latino students reaching the threshold for proficiency, compared to just over two-thirds of whites and Asians. And students with disabilities, and those who are new to English, have very low rates of proficiency in English—16 percent and 12 percent, respectively.
But things look far worse in the projections for 2013. Whereas 47 percent of students in grades 3-8 were proficient in English Language Arts in 2012, only 22 percent are projected to be proficient based on the new Common Core-aligned assessments. Declines are projected across the board, but are especially striking for the groups that were already low in 2012. The proficiency rates for Black and Latino students, approaching 40 percent in 2012, are projected to drop to 15 percent and 16 percent, respectively, in 2013. Just five percent of students with disabilities and three percent of English Language Learners are projected to be classified as proficient on the new 2013 assessments.
The story for mathematics is largely the same. Because a higher percentage of students in New York City and across the state were classified as proficient in math than in English in 2012, the declines are not as steep, but are still startling. Overall proficiency at grade level in math across New York City is projected to fall from 60 percent in 2012 to 31 percent in 2013. Gaps among groups are preserved in my projections: Only 20 percent of Black students and 24 percent of Latino students are projected to be proficient in math. Only one in 10 students with disabilities, and one in seven English Language Learners, is projected to meet the higher standards inscribed in the 2013 Common Core-aligned math assessment.
In many respects, the projected drop in proficiency associated with the adoption of the new standards parallels the yawning gap between high-school graduation rates and college readiness in New York City. Over the past decade, high-school graduation rates in the Big Apple have soared, with the four-year graduation rate for students entering ninth grade in 2007 reaching 66 percent. As Figure 2 shows, this growth has been observed across the board, with graduation rates of approximately 60 percent for Black and Latino youth. English Language Learners have a reported graduation rate of 45 percent in this cohort, and 31 percent of the students with disabilities graduated in four years.
But just as the old standards for what students need to know to succeed in life after high school may have been too lax, a high-school diploma is also a minimum threshold. And even with state requirements for course-taking and Regents’ exams, the meaning of a high-school diploma in New York City and elsewhere is ambiguous. The New York State Board of Regents has adopted what it refers to as an “aspirational” performance measure that is more stringent than the minimum requirements for a high-school diploma in New York state, adding the criterion of performance on the high school Regents exams at a level that predicts a smooth entry into college without remedial coursework.
Figure 2 also shows the percentage of New York City’s entering cohort of ninth-graders in 2007 who met the Regents college-readiness standard. Whereas 65 percent of the members of this cohort graduated from high school within four years, just 21 percent met the college readiness standard. Moreover, the system’s apparent success with Black and Latino students evaporates, with just one in nine of these youth leaving high school in four years ready for college. English Language Learners and students with disabilities have the lowest college readiness rates of all: just seven percent of students new to English graduate from high school ready for college, according to the state’s aspirational measure, and a shocking one percent of students with disabilities do so.
Two different narratives are associated with the patterns described in these two figures. The first is, “More work needs to be done. Overall, the system is not yet succeeding for all students, and troubling gaps among groups remain. But these numbers show progress—things were worse prior to the implementation of the Bloomberg-era reforms. The progress is evidence that the reforms are working, and we should stay the course in the future.”
The second is, “You’re darn right the system isn’t succeeding for all students, and these gaps are deplorable. And this is after more than a decade of market-based reforms relying heavily on the invisible hand of the market to drive innovation and sustain success. If this is the best that we have to show for more than a decade of Bloomberg-era reforms, we need a different strategy. Let’s replace the invisible hand of the market with a helping hand devoted to building the capacity of schools and teachers to educate students more successfully.”
Me, I’m going with Door #2.