A school bus passes a sign encouraging parents to refuse that their children take state tests on Monday, April 13, 2015, in Rotterdam, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

New York just released student scores on the 2015 state-mandated Common Core standardized tests in math and English Language Arts and the results were interesting. The scores — the third year for Common Core testing — edged up slightly from last year, but a comparison with last year is not especially useful, given that some 20 percent of students opted out of the tests this past spring, far more than last year.  So what do the test scores mean?  Carol Burris, the executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education Fund, explains in this post. Burris retired in June as an award-winning principal at a New York high school, and she is the author of numerous articles, books and blog posts (including on The Answer Sheet) about the botched school reform efforts in her state.

By Carol Burris

Once again, New York State Common Core test scores are a flop. The proficiency needle barely budged.

The percentage of students scoring proficient in English Language Arts rose less than 1 point, to 31.3 percent. The percentage of students who met math proficiency rose less than 2 points, to 38.1 percent. At this rate of increase, it will take about 70 years for all New York students to meet both New York Common Core proficiency cut scores.

There was no closing of the gap—in fact when it comes to proficiency rates, the gap between white students and black students and white students and Latino students widened in both ELA and math. The math proficiency gap increased by more than 3 percentage points. Both black and Latino student math proficiency rates rose about 1 percent–gains by white students were largely responsible for most of the increase in state math scores.

Only 4.4 percent of all English language learners and 5.7 percent of students with disabilities were proficient in English Language Arts, and their math proficiency gains were respectively 0.6 percent and 1 percent. Economically disadvantaged students’ proficiency rates were not part of the released results.

What was reported this year was data on opt outs. Over 200,000 students opted out of the tests. Remarkably, opt outs helped fuel the small overall increases. If the 20 percent of potential test takers had opted in, the tiny increases in proficiency rates would have likely been smaller still. Opt outs were disproportionately students who had scored at levels 1 or 2 (below proficiency) during the prior year. Regrettably, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia used the release of the scores as an opportunity to threaten school districts that had high opt outs with loss of funding.   She said the data from test scores were part of a “bigger plan” to know how districts were doing.

I suspect there is already enough evidence to give Ms. Elia a clue. Three years of data make it crystal clear that the New York State Education Department is giving inappropriate tests, which are, for most students, a prolonged and arduous exercise in multiple guess.

No one should be more embarrassed by that sad state of affairs than Chancellor Merryl Tisch.  Answer Sheet readers may remember her big promise after the first year of Common Core tests. Comparing herself to Babe Ruth, Tisch 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.” [].

That promise was made after the first year of testing. In Year 2, there were flat ELA scores and a tiny tick up in math. Year 3 is once again a bust.

Even before their release, Tisch was setting the stage for disappointing scores. The first clue came on July 9 when the State Education Department made a surprise announcement that they were abandoning Pearson, the creator of the states 3-8 Common Core tests. The new test maker would be Questar, an unlikely choice. Questar, which will be receiving $44 million, has no track record creating 3-8 state accountability tests. The only two contracts that Questar has procured for 3-8 testing are for New York and Mississippi.

The second clue came July 20 when Tisch said, ““Personally, I would say that if I was the mother of a student with a certain type of disability, I would think twice before I allowed my child to sit through an exam that was incomprehensible to them,”

The “incomprehensible” test to which she refers is her own State Education Department’s Grade 3-8 Common Core tests. She does not explain what exactly that “certain type of disability” is. Apparently nearly 70 percent of all New York students have it.

Clue No. 3 came the same day. An opinion piece with a very odd title, “The Good News about New York Students’ Low Test Scores,” appeared in Crain’s New York Business.  The gist of the article was that the New York high failure rates on Grade 3-8 tests were perfectly fine because proficiency rates are “essentially arbitrary” (true) and New York’s arbitrary thresholds were the highest in the nation. The author of the opinion piece, Erik Engquist, suggested that the high bar is great for kids—regardless of whether or not most have a snowball’s chance of jumping over it.

And here is how the piece ends:

“The findings appear to validate the approach of Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the state Board of Regents, who less than a decade ago led the charge to raise proficiency benchmarks when it became clear that they had become easy to achieve.”

Actually, Tisch started raising benchmarks after it was discovered that her State Education Department had been sort of “cooking the books” when setting the proficiency bar on the old tests thereby producing inflated gains.

This would all be an interesting exercise in image repair for the billionaire chancellor except that there are students and teachers on the receiving end of this mess.

In a few weeks, kids will receive scores that will provide false information that they are falling behind. They will be put in remediation losing time for enrichment and the arts. These scores may be part of deciding whether they will get into an enrichment program or the middle school of their choice. Teachers will receive “state growth scores” based on these tests. And as the new teacher evaluation system, which bases 50% on test scores kicks in, the pressure to test prep will be enormous.

In the press release that announced the dismal scores, Tisch uses the Engquist argument—don’t look at the scores, look instead at our remarkable standards–as the indicator of progress. The woman who once likened herself to the great Babe Ruth is now the accidental tourist who wandered onto the field filled with very, very, very high bars. It is fair to ask when she will she be held accountable to produce results.

Tisch is now working with her fourth commissioner. But MaryEllen Elia can’t fix the mess alone. Elia needs a new course and a new boss. And until that happens, no matter what the threats, opt outs will continue to grow.