A disturbing look at Common Core tests in New York

The promise of new standardized tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards  was that they would show which students were ready for college and career and which weren’t. But in New York, a look at the tests shows how the state is failing to meet that promise. This was written by Carol Burris and John Murphy. Murphy, a former English teacher, is the assistant principal of South Side High School in New York, and he coordinates the school’s IB program.  Burris, principal of South Side High School, has been chronicling the flawed implementation of school reform and the Common Core State Standards across the state for some time (here, and here and here and here, for example). She was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010, tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. Her new book is “On The Same Track: How Schools Can Join the Twenty-First-Century Struggle Against Resegregation.”

By Carol Burris and John Murphy

Congratulations to the New York State Education Department. Officials there have solved the college remediation problem. Their Common Core graduation tests are so “rigorous” and have a  new passing score (for students graduating in 2022) set so high  that only about 1 in 4 students will graduate high school.  And the elite 25 percent who make it won’t be going to community college, so the colleges with highest remediation rates can close.

On what basis do we make such a claim? As Brooklyn principal, Liz Phillips, said in The New York Times, “We need to talk about the tests.”  Unlike the grades 3-8 tests, which are hidden from the public eye, the new Common Core high school tests can be seen—including the “passing scores” that will determine graduation, both now and in the future.  Let’s take a look at the tests, as well as the cut scores, in order to better understand the continuing march of New York’s reformist lemmings right over the cliff of reason.

First, let’s talk about the Common Core Algebra Regents which was given primarily to 8th or 9th graders in early June.  Passing the test is a graduation requirement for these students.  In concepts tested, the exam was similar to the old Algebra Regents, with some traditional Algebra 2 topics making their way onto the exam.  But in order to make the test ‘Common Core’, the questions became wordy and confusing.  You can find the entire test here.

Here is one example. Question 12 asks students to identify an equation, written as a function, given two roots.  In the past, the question would have been phrased:  “Given the roots -6 and 5, which of the following would be the correct equation?” Students are then given four choices.

Here is the Common Core phrasing: “Keith determines the zeros of the function f(x) to be -6 and 5. What could be Keith’s function?”

This is but one example of a question that was made unnecessarily complicated and wordy in order to give the illusion of a ‘real world’ problem that requires deep thinking. And then there are the questions designed to give a window into the student’s problem solving skills, such as question 34, which includes, “Describe how your equation models the situation.”  The “situation” refers to dimensions of a garden.  How does an English language learner, with good math skills, begin to understand what that question is asking?

Of equal importance is where the Common Core Algebra cut scores were set.


New York State United Teachers President Karen Magee talks with reporters in a hallway at the Capitol on Thursday, June 19, 2014, in Albany, N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo says teachers shouldn’t lose their jobs simply because their students performed poorly on the state’s new Common Core tests, at least for a few years. Cuomo proposed legislation Thursday that would change how test scores are used in evaluations to prevent teachers deemed “ineffective” or “developing” from facing termination or a denial of tenure based solely on student test scores. Magee says Cuomo’s proposal is a “reset button” that ensures teachers won’t be unfairly judged based on the controversial new standards. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

 

It was predetermined by the State Education Department that for now, the passing rate on the Common Core test would be the same as the traditional passing rate on the old exam. In order to keep the passing rate the same (about 74 percent), students only needed to earn 30 of a possible 84 points on the Common Core exam in order to pass. What would the passing rate  be if the new “College Readiness” passing score were in place? That cut score was also determined. Ninth-graders, four years from now, would have needed 66 of 86 points; only 22 percent of the sampled test takers would have passed.

You can learn all about the New York State cut-score setting process for the Common Core high school exams here. The first 51 PowerPoint slides are designed to convince the audience of the compelling need to jump off the cliff and the statistical method by which this can be accomplished.  Slides 52 to 59 show where the cuts were set, and what percentage of test takers achieved them. Is it reasonable to assume that 22 percent will rise to 74 percent or better in four years, when the Class of ‘22 will be in Grade 9? Even if the number doubles, would that be good enough for a graduation rate?

As a result, large numbers of students will take the Common Core Algebra course and the test over and over again, rather than move on to Geometry and Advanced Algebra, which would better prepare them for college– all because of a glass ceiling created by overly complicated problems in the name of the Common Core.

The Common Core English Regents was even worse. You can find that test here.

The number of questions on the Common Core English Language Arts Regents exam is almost identical to that of its predecessor, which was based on the former state standards. But the reading requirement on the new exam has almost tripled; the January 2014 ELA Regents exam contained readings that totaled 2,200 words, compared to the Common Core’s 6,200. What’s more, the readings themselves are more difficult in terms of vocabulary, main idea or theme, and syntax–so students have less time to spend on each question, and significantly less time to spend on the writing. It was clearly modeled after the Advanced Placement Language exam. This year’s Common Core ELA exam readings begin with a long selection from a Sherlock Holmes novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, which describes the importance of careful attention to detail in discerning evidence.  This is followed by 10 questions, all of which require students to go back and examine lines from the text.  One can only imagine the time it would take for a special education student with a reading disability to complete this task.  And he would still have another 16 pages of the exam to complete.

After a poem by Langston Hughes, which is followed by five questions, the student encounters a difficult passage from Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain. The piece is abstract and esoteric, asking the reader to shrink into a crystalline world of a microgram of salt in order to see “rank upon rank of an ordered array.” This may be an interesting piece on an AP exam, or an SAT II in reading or science, but on a timed test that determines high school graduation it is over the top.   English Language Learners’ and weak readers’ eyes will glaze over before encountering the 10 questions.

To even get to the first writing task, the reader then has an another four texts to slog through.  After writing a response to those texts, it is on to a  speech written in 1915 by a suffragette that requires students to write a “text based response.”  Students are expected to accomplish all of the above in no more than three hours. Children who have readers and extended time will never be able to complete even with their testing modifications in place.

So what do the Common Core English Regents cut scores look like?  Like the Common Core Algebra exam, the state wanted the passing rate to stay the same (about 77 percent). The writing section was weighed so heavily on this new exam, that the first three readings and their 24 multiple choice questions were moot, at least for passing. If a student earns a 4 out 6 on the written argument, and a 2 out of 4 on the short responses, a student passes the exam if she answers a mere 5 out of 24 questions correctly. Five out of 24 is in the realm of pure chance. On the January Regents —  the one that is being phased out — if a student earned the same scores on the writing portion, they needed to answer 20 out of 24 multiple-choice questions correctly in order to receive a passing grade.  A more reasonable test can have higher expectations for student performance.

We were promised that the test would be an indication of who was and was not college and career ready; the test has no validity in this regard. In fact, we are hearing reports of students taking both the Common Core and the traditional English Regents this month, passing the Common Core Regents and failing the traditional exam. When guessing gets you to pass, a test measures close to nothing.

If we base the passing score on the cut score for passing in 2022, students still only need to answer 13 out of 24 multiple-choice questions correctly with satisfactory scores on the writing tasks.  Even so, because this difficult test is so out of touch with reasonable expectations for reading and writing within three hours, only 44 percent were able to meet that standard.

And therein lies the problem that the New York State Education Department will face.  If they raise the passing bar on the two exams as promised for the Class of 2022, the graduation rate will plummet. Even given modest growth, we predict graduation rates would be about 25 percent.  If they keep the passing cut score where it is, then kids will do little more than guess and they will pass,  but we will have no idea what they know.

Can New York’s students meet more challenging standards? Of course they can.  But you must have reasonable standards, take the time to build capacity, and then create assessments that allow students to show what they know, not make tests so difficult few can demonstrate their learning.  New York is the canary in the Common Core mine.  New York parents, as well as parents in other states, should take the time to look at these tests and decide for themselves if they are reasonable assessments on which to base all students’ diplomas.   Is the Common Core and its tests the path to college readiness?  We think not.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · June 27