By Carol Burris
This time last year, New York State Schools Chancellor Merryl Tisch made a very big promise. Comparing herself to the great Babe Ruth she said:
“He called that shot, and he said, ‘I’m going to hit it there’…A year from now, God willing, if we’re all sitting here, I promise you test scores are going to go up.”
A year later, let’s see how the Bambina did.
Curiously, this year it is far more difficult to see where the ball landed. The New York State Education Department did not provide as much detail as they have in the past. For example, in prior years, including the first year of Common Core State Standards-aligned testing, average scores known as means–both statewide and by subgroup—were given. This is important because while proficiency levels are set by the state education commissioner and are thus subject to manipulation, average scores are a good second check on student performance. In other words, even if there is an umpire at home plate, you still need one positioned near first base as well.
This year those mean scores — the “second umpire” — are absent from the report .
When transparency declines, it is rarely accidental. In order to see how average scores may have changed from last year to this year, I computed an estimate based on county data, for which the state still reports these scores.
I chose nine counties with large student populations, including three New York City counties. New York City was featured for its score gains. In addition to the New York City counties (Manhattan, Bronx and Queens), I chose three affluent suburban counties (Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester) and three upstate counties that include cities, suburbs and rural areas (Albany, Monroe and Erie).
English-Language Arts (ELA) scores never left the infield. Although an additional 0.5 percent of students exceeded the cut score that allegedly shows they are proficient in the Common Core standards, average scores on five of the six tested grade levels appear to have declined. The average decline in third-grade ELA scale scores among the nine counties was three points. The fourth-grade average decline was one point, fifth-grade averages dropped three points, the sixth-grade score drop was one point, and seventh-grade average scores dropped four points. The only grade that did not see a decline in average scores was Grade 8—the difference in the means was 0.
The only good news for ELA was that the achievement gap between white and black proficiency rates narrowed a bit. However, a narrower gap, achieved predominantly through lower scores of the higher performing group, is not the strategy of choice. The proficiency rate for white students dropped two points (38 percent), and the proficiency rate for black students went up one point (17 percent).
Although math scores were not a strikeout, they were hardly a home run. Across grade levels 3-7, the average scale point increase was four. There was a drop in eighth-grade scores, but that was most likely due to exemptions granted to students who took algebra. I excluded that drop from the calculation. To put the increase in perspective, given that the average math scale score in the nine districts was 301, it would indicate that students got either one or two more test items correct on this year’s test. A score of 301 is in the Band Level 2, which is below proficient.
Although the New York State Education Department reported that all subgroups had improved proficiency rates in math, they failed to report that increases were uneven. What that means is that achievement gap in math on the Common Core tests may be increasing. The proficiency rates for white students increased by 7 percentage points, but the increase for black students was smaller—5 percent. Forty-five of white students are considered proficient in the math standards as compared with 20 percent of black students. Students who were English proficient had their rate increase by 5 percentage points, but the increase in proficiency for English language learners was only 2 percent. While general education students saw math proficiency increases of 7 percentage points, the increase for students with disabilities was only 3 percentage points. Mean scores for subgroups of students were not made public this year, so a more detailed analysis is not possible.
The lack of success of the state’s most vulnerable children on tests that are inappropriate measures of learning is breathtaking. The ELA proficiency rate for students with disabilities who are economically disadvantaged is only 4 percent. Seventy-six percent of such students remain in the lowest of the 4 score bands, 1. This is not a small group of students; they comprise 123,233 of New York’s public school children in Grades 3-8. The news was equally bad for the nearly 78,000 English Language learners whose ELA proficiency rate remained stuck at 3 percent.
Ms. Tisch had every reason to expect that scores would rise. The state had spent in excess of $28 million on curriculum. Familiarity with the test alone should have resulted in a bump in the scores. The Regents had turned up the heat on teachers and principals with an accountability system that made their job, in part, dependent on how their students did on the test. The odds were in Bambina’s favor.
However, all of the above could not compensate for tests that were inappropriate measures of the performance of all of New York’s children. Nor could the above compensate for flawed Common Core standards based on assumptions not based on research and sound educational practice.
It is time for Ms. Tisch and the Board of Regents to alter the course, re-examine the Common Core standards and its tests, and courageously stand for the children of New York. The original embrace of the Race to the Top reforms was understandable and forgivable. The continuation of the reforms — despite the mounting evidence of failure — is not. This is not a game of baseball.