Could the recently released New York State test results for students in grades 3 through 8 in English language arts (ELA) and math be any worse? Well, I guess they could, but the results are plenty poor enough. Where is the exasperation, New York taxpayers? Where is the alarm that your kids aren’t learning fundamental skills, New York parents? Maybe everyone was on vacation.
You might remember that it was just last spring when record numbers of New York students “opted out” of taking the tests as families protested the new Common Core Learning Standards and/or the tests created to match them and/or the promise of using student test results to evaluate teachers. We will get to the 20 percent who opted out in a minute. They have already gotten more press than the test results.
Here is some background you will need (especially you readers who are outside of New York State). Results on the new New York State tests—first given in 2013 and designed to measure the new Common Core Learning Standards, adopted in 2011—are reported according to these achievement levels with regard to the Standards:
- Level 4—The student excels.
- Level 3—The student is proficient.
- Level 2—The student is partially proficient.
- Level 1—The student is well below proficient.
The State is hoping for 3’s and 4’s, which indicate that the student is on track to score at a college-ready and career-ready achievement level when it comes time for the high school Common Core Regents Exams. Parents and other taxpayers, you should be hoping for 3’s and 4’s, too.
So, How Bad Was It in ELA?
About 31 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 scored a 3 or 4 (with a range across the grades from about 29 percent to almost 35 percent). That 31 percent figure has been virtually the same for all three years of testing with the new tests. Just 31 percent of elementary and middle school students are proficient in reading and writing skills statewide. In case you think it is New York City’s fault, it’s not. About 30 percent of New York City students scored a 3 or 4 across grades 3 through 8. Wow.
It is time for the other shoe to drop: What percent of New York State students scored a 1—meaning that they are well below proficient? The answer is almost 34 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 (with a range across the grades from about 30 percent to almost 38 percent). Again, New York City scores are just about the same.
So, here’s the summary: About a third of New York State students are proficient or better (the 3’ and 4’s), about a third are partially proficient (the 2’s), and about a third are well below proficient (the 1’s). That’s also true for New York City students. Who thinks that is okay?
Maybe Math Was Great?
About 38 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 scored a 3 or 4 (with a range across grades 3 through 7 from about 35 percent to about 43 percent—and with an oddly low 22 percent in grade 8, likely caused by the fact that the many of the best math students in eighth grade were accelerated into Algebra and took the high school Regents Examination rather than this grade 8 test). That 38 percent figure has indeed improved from the 31 percent figure we started with in 2013. Again, New York City students in grades 3 through 8 are not far behind, with 35 percent scoring a 3 or 4.
So, what percent of New York State students scored a 1—well below proficient? The answer is about 31 percent across grades 3 through 8 (with a range from about 27 percent to almost 34 percent, with an oddly high approximately 40 percent in grade 8, again likely due to the removal of the best math students who did not take this test). Almost 34 percent of New York City students in grades 3 though 8 scored a 1.
This is it in a nutshell, and it is a familiar story: Just over a third of New York State students are proficient or better (the 3’ and 4’s), just under a third are partially proficient (the 2’s), and just under a third are well below proficient (the 1’s). New York City students’ results are quite similar. Compared to the ELA results, you ask? The results are ever so slightly better in math and would likely have been a bit better if the best eighth grade math students (who were accelerated into Algebra and took the Algebra Regents Examination) had been tested with this test instead.
What About Black and Hispanic Students?
It’s not good news. This year, about 40 percent of white students scored a 3 or 4 on the ELA tests, and about 50 percent of white students scored a 3 or 4 on the math tests. The figures for black and Hispanic students were about 20 percentage points lower than white students. On the math tests, the differences were about 25 percentage points. That’s what anyone would call a huge achievement gap.
Years ago, my nonprofit organization was working in Cleveland, then under Court-ordered desegregation. The Federal District Court had told the Cleveland Public Schools that the school district would be under Court order until the reading scores of black and white students in grades 1 though 9 were equal. It seemed like a tall order then—though an essential one. Unfortunately, it seems like a tall order today in New York State some 30 years later.
Let’s Blame the New Harder Tests—Not
Various officials have remarked that the new tests designed to match the new Common Core Learning Standards are harder than the old New York State tests designed to match the old New York State Standards. There might be some truth to that.
However, the third grade test still looks about like a third grade test. It’s doesn’t look like a sixth grade test given to third graders. Read the questions that New York State released to the public for yourself. Yes, you might find some that seem too hard or confusing or unfair in some way. (I can tell you from lots of personal experience that it is really hard to write thousands of perfect test questions.) But, at the end of the day, the tests are going to seem reasonable to you. After all, no one who was writing them wanted to see thousands of children fail.
So, I don’t think we can blame the new harder tests. Try this: Forget how students did on the older and perhaps easier New York State tests and consider only how they are doing now. How do you feel about a third of students being proficient or excelling, a third being partially proficient, and a third being well below proficient? That’s the question you have to answer.
By the way, the students who opted out and did not take the tests last spring were more likely to have scored a 1 or 2 back in 2014, according to New York State Education Department data. Oh, no. If lots of those students had taken the tests, the results might have been even worse.
As we begin another school year, it is time to address any concerns you have about New York State testing, and an honest conversation about the results is a great way to start:
- All parents: Ask your school board to talk about the New York State results in ELA and in math in grades 3 through 8 and to discuss how your school district’s results compared to the State results. This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to study the results before that meeting and to get the input of district administrators and teachers before and/or during the meeting. Listen for the administrators to explain the results in a way that makes sense to you—not explain away the results as if they weren’t legitimate.
- Elementary and middle school parents: Ask your principal and classroom teachers to discuss your school’s results with parents. Are they satisfied with the results? If not, what changes are taking place to improve the results? Tell them whether you are satisfied with the results.
- High school parents: Ask your principal and classroom teachers to discuss the eighth grade test scores of the new ninth grade class and to discuss what they are doing to help incoming students who do not have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in high school courses.