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There’s been a considerable debate in New York State about when to demand that high school students master the new Common Core standards as a requirement for graduation. The state began upgrading its traditional high school exams, known as the Regents, to the Common Core standards in 2014. But because teachers hadn’t been teaching the new Common Core material for very long, officials decided to give students a safety net:  they would continue to administer the old exam, along with the new Common Core exam, and the students could use whichever score was higher.

In the case of algebra, many students took both the old and new exams within a few weeks of each other during June 2014. And that created a wonderful laboratory experiment to see how these same students — most of them eighth and ninth graders —  did on these two different algebra tests. It also may have given us a troubling forecast for what tougher Common Core exams will reveal as they are administered in the rest of the country.

David Rubel, an educational consultant in New York City, examined the algebra testing data by different groups of students, and he noted an interesting pattern, in a discussion paper posted on his website. Higher-income students, and those without disabilities or English language barriers, passed the new Common Core exam at about the same rate as they passed the old exam. That’s not because they had instantly mastered the new Common Core material. But rather, as part of the transition to the Common Core standards, policy makers set the passing mark at place where at least 65 percent of all test takers would pass it, which is approximately the same percentage of students that had passed the algebra Regents exam in previous years. As a result, a student could pass the new Common Core exam by answering as few as 35 percent of the questions correctly.

Even with the bar this low, Rubel pointed out steep drops in the passing rate among three particular groups: low-income students, English language learners and disabled students.

For example, only 54 percent of low-income students passed the Common Core algebra exam in June 2014. But 64 percent of low-income students passed the old exam during the 2013-14 school year. By contrast, the same percentage of higher-income students — 83 percent — passed both the old and new exams.*

There was a similar drop for students with disabilities. Only 30 percent passed the Common Core exam, while 41 percent passed the old algebra exam. And there was an even more alarming drop for English language learners — especially on a math exam. Only 26 percent passed the Common Core version while 50 percent passed the old version.

In the national debate over Common Core, many have predicted that low-income and minority test scores would plummet at first and that the achievement gap would widen. One reason is that the new exams require more writing, even in math, and have fewer multiple choice questions. These early algebra results from New York confirm those worries, and are a glimpse into what the nation is likely to experience as Common Core exams roll out elsewhere.

“I certainly wouldn’t use the word ‘discriminatory’,” said Rubel, who says he is a proponent of Common Core. “My observation would be that you probably are going to have to set up a two-track system, where kids with disabilities and ELL [English Language Learners] continue to take the old test for a couple more years.  It’s going to take time for these kids to excel, and for the teachers to adjust. It seems by putting everyone in the same boat, they’re rushing the system unnecessarily.”

* There’s one big caveat to the New York test data. The Common Core test was only given once, in June, 2014, whereas the old exam was administered three times that school year, allowing retakers extra chances to pass. Unfortunately, New York State hasn’t released demographic data for the June-only administration of the old test. Probably, passing rates for June-only on the old exam will be slightly lower, making the difference between the two exams not quite as dramatic. But new data from the state’s largest city, New York City, indicates that the growing achievement gap is real. Among 54,000 New York City students who took both exams in June, 2014, 72 percent passed the old exam, while 56 percent passed the new Common Core one, as first reported in Chalkbeat NY. The majority of public school students in the city are low-income. 

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