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New York State released the results from the latest round of Common Core-aligned tests on Wednesday. Three years into the transition to harder tests, scores across the board have remained low and largely stagnant.
Thirty percent of all fifth-graders passed the English exam, for instance – while just 7 percent of special education students did. In math, 43 percent of all fifth-graders were proficient, but only a quarter of black students were.
“This work is not easy and success isn’t going to be instantaneous,” MaryEllen Elia, New York’s commissioner of education, said on a call to reporters Wednesday. “Changing standards is not going to happen overnight, it takes time. Teachers need to try different strategies and they need to have information about what has been successful.”
New York is the second state in the country to have three years of testing under the new, tougher standards. Kentucky will release results from its fourth year of exams this fall, but most of the 44 states that adopted Common Core only began the new exams this spring.
The past three years of testing have been rough for New York. Complaints began right away in 2013 when the state switched to the new exam and continued when the scores showed proficiency rates had dropped roughly 24 percentage points in English and 34 percentage points in math. In the subsequent two years, criticism grew – over the stakes attached to the exams, the tests themselves and the standards. A robust “opt-out” movement led by disaffected parents and supported in part by teachers resulted in 20 percent of New York students not taking the exams, up from 5 percent the previous year.
As frustration about Common Core has mounted across the country, New York’s experience suggests that it might be many years before there is evidence of success under the new standards and it’s not clear if parents and educators whose patience has been tested are willing to wait that long.
“This is just a snapshot of a larger reform process that is going to take over a decade to phase in,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University and an occasional contributor to The Hechinger Report. “It’s hard to know what the right timeframe is to expect to see meaningful change, maybe three years is too short.”
And scores have not improved much in the three years. A Hechinger Report analysis found that English scores were essentially stagnant across the state and math scores went up slightly. White and Asian students, however, drove this increase, while the gulf between black and Latino students and their peers has widened.
In 2013, for example, 30 percent of fifth-graders passed the state math exam. This year, when the vast majority of those students were in seventh grade, 35 percent of seventh-graders passed the test. But while white students went from 36 to 46 percent proficiency, black students only increased from 15 to 17 percent and Hispanic students from 18 to 20 percent.
These results buck the conventional wisdom that as teachers and students get more comfortable with a test, scores increase.
“In one way, this is a positive sign,” said Derek Briggs, a professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Education. “If we were seeing big jumps in the first few years, that could mean teachers had found a way to game the tests through test preparation. That isn’t happening in New York, which might be a sign that there’s no easy way to beat these tests.”
Briggs, who advised New York on the creation of the new tests, added “but we would have hoped there would have been more of an increase in scores that reflect the fact that teachers are getting better at teaching the Common Core.”
In addition to looking a lot like last year’s results, these scores also match New York’s results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often called the Nation’s Report Card, which is considered the gold standard for student exams.
In the past, critics chastised states for giving tests that were much easier than NAEP and argued that those tests didn’t give an honest portrait of whether students were ready for college or a career.
Many in New York have expressed doubt that these Common Core-aligned tests have solved that problem and are accurate measures of student knowledge. The state’s teachers union has supported the parent-led opt-out movement. In addition to the high overall opt-out rate, at least half of students opted out of the math exam in 122 districts and of the English exam in 95 districts.
State officials acknowledged this trend but emphasized how many students did take the exams.
“There is no question that when you have approximately 20 percent of students not taking the test, there could be some variations in the scores,” said Elia. “But we did have 900,000 students test.”
Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank that has supported Common Core, cautioned that the amount of students not taking the test makes it difficult to compare this year with previous years.
“Those are huge opt-out numbers,” Petrilli said. “Now that they are official, we can say that this was a big deal. If this happened in a lot of other states, it could be a huge threat to the entire standards and accountability system.”
Petrilli, however, thinks that politics might make New York an outlier. Governor Andrew Cuomo has held steadfast to the state’s policy of evaluating teachers based partially on their students’ performance on standardized tests. In fact, during the most recent legislative session, the Democratic governor successfully championed a bill that increased the weight placed on student standardized test scores.
“Not every state has a Governor Cuomo,” Petrilli said. “Many states have been smarter about holding off on other parts of the reform agenda like using test scores for teacher evaluations while they transitioned to harder tests.”