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It’s ‘Opposite Day’ among ed policymakers in Albany

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Eye on Education

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Black is white. Day is night. Common Core-aligned tests are just like other standardized tests.

Wait, what? Haven’t we been told that Common Core-aligned tests are a completely different species? That’s been the message across the country, and particularly in the state of New York, which administered Common Core-aligned tests of English Language Arts and mathematics to students in grades 3-8 for the first time this past April. New York’s policymakers-in-chief—John King, Shael Polakow-Suransky, Merryl Tisch and Dennis Walcott—took to the pages of the New York Daily News five months ago to prime parents about the shift. The Common Core standards, they wrote, are much better markers of readiness for college and a dog-eat-dog workforce because they call for heightened critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. The new tests aligned to these standards, they claimed, tap new and different competencies than the old generation of tests, which “assessed only basic skills.”

The new tests thus “raised the bar”—a metaphorical phrase that should be banned from every policymaker’s vocabulary, unless it refers to pole-vaulting or rooftop cocktail parties. But New York already raised the bar in 2010, increasing the level of performance required on the old tests to be classified as proficient at grade-level in English Language Arts and mathematics in grades 3-8. The Common Core-aligned tests did more than this—they raised the bar by introducing new dimensions of student performance not previously represented on the old generation of tests.

Predictably, students across the state fared poorly on the new Common Core-aligned tests, as many teachers lacked access to a curriculum designed to assist students in mastering the Common Core standards. Though this was anticipated, the state found itself in a bind. State regulations mandate what are called Academic Intervention Services (AIS) for students in grades 3-8 who score below the threshold for proficiency on either the English Language Arts or mathematics tests. AIS consisting of supplemental instruction may occur before or after school, or during class-time, with students being pulled out of their regular classrooms, or attending AIS classes that supplant elective classes. AIS may also include school guidance and counseling supports for behavior or health issues presenting barriers to student learning. These services are funded through a mix of local, state and, where appropriate, federal funds.

The funding does not, however, expand in direct proportion to the number of students who are eligible for AIS. And therein lies the dilemma. Last year, 45 percent of the third-graders taking the state English Language Arts exam scored below the level of proficiency, triggering mandatory AIS. This year, 69 percent of third-graders were classified as falling short of proficient, a sharp increase. (This same pattern is observed across the board for both English Language Arts and math in grades 3-8.) As daunting as it may be to conclude that nearly one-half of all students are performing at a level warranting intensive supplemental instruction, the notion that more than two-thirds require something “special” strains credulity—and school district pocketbooks, since funds available for AIS did not rise in anticipation of the sharp decline in the percentage of students classified as proficient.

Though this consequence was apparent from the moment that the New York State Education Department determined to implement the Common Core standards and assessments, the state waited until this month to propose a short-term fix: even though there was a sharp increase in the percentage of students scoring below proficient on the state exams, and therefore required to receive AIS, the eligibility criterion would be adjusted so that approximately the same percentage of students across the state would receive AIS in 2013-14 as did in 2012-13, based on the old, “basic-skills” test.

What’s the basis for this? Politics, pure and simple. The state admits that it’s not possible to compare performance on the two tests: “[P]roficiency standards on the 2012 and the 2013 state assessments cannot be directly compared,” wrote State Deputy Commissioner of Education Ken Slentz to the Regents P-12 Education Committee, “because the 2012 tests were designed to measure different learning standards than the 2013 Common Core tests. However, the Department can determine the scale scores for each respective year that are associated with students who scored at the same percentile rank on the two assessments.”

There are conditions under which this procedure, formally known as equipercentile test equating, might be justifiable: if the characteristics of the population taking the two tests are the same, if the overall ability of the 2012 test-takers is the same as the ability of the 2013 test-takers, and if the 2012 and 2013 tests are measuring the same thing. Year-to-year changes in the population of third-graders through eighth-graders across the state are generally pretty small, so that’s not a horrible assumption. There’s no way to tell whether students’ ability was the same for the 2013 test-takers as for the 2012 test-takers, but assuming that there was no change isn’t unreasonable.

But the third assumption—that the 2013 test is measuring the same thing as the 2012 test—is clearly false, and the state admits it. There’s no basis for claiming that a third-grader who scored at the 45th percentile on the 2013 test is performing at the same level as a third-grader who scored at the 45th percentile on the 2012 test. You might as well decide to identify students for AIS services because their height, or their performance on a vision test, is below the 45th percentile.

The new New York State Common Core-aligned state assessments are fundamentally different than the tests that preceded them—except when the state needs to assume that they aren’t. In Albany, every day is Opposite Day.

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Aaron Pallas

Aaron Pallas is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and… See Archive

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