According to this year’s math and English Language Arts (ELA) tests administered by the state of New York, less than a third of students in grades three through eight are performing at grade level.
The scores, released Wednesday, Aug. 7, represent a significant drop since last year, but State Education Commissioner John King insists there’s no cause for alarm.
“These proficiency scores do not reflect a drop in performance, but rather a raising of standards to reflect college and career readiness in the 21st century,” King said. “I understand these scores are sobering for parents, teachers and principals. It’s frustrating to see our children struggle. But we can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed by frustration; we must be energized by this opportunity. The results we’ve announced are not a critique of past efforts; they’re a new starting point on a roadmap to future success.”
This year’s exams mark the first time exams incorporated so-called Common Core learning standards (CCLS), a more rigorous benchmark approved by the Board of Regents in 2010. The requirements, which have been adopted in states across the country, are aimed at helping children acquire sophisticated reasoning skills. The goal behind these standards is to move the schools away from rote learning to a writing-intensive curriculum that emphasizes problem-solving skills. Tests are graded on a scale of 1 to 4; levels 3 and 4 indicate proficiency. Statewide, 31.1 percent of students in grades three through eight met or exceeded the ELA proficiency standard, while 31 percent met or exceeded the math proficiency standard. Last year, those numbers were closer to 55 percent, but state education officials said the tests are so different that they shouldn’t be compared.
“The world has changed, the economy has changed and what our students need to know has changed,” Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch said. “These scores reflect a new baseline and a new beginning. We have just finished the first year of a dramatic shift in teaching and learning. Teachers, principals, superintendents and school boards have worked extraordinarily hard to implement the Common Core. With the right tools, the right training, and continuous feedback and support, our teachers — the best teaching force in the country — will make sure all our students are prepared for college and career success in the 21st century.”
Because these scores supposedly create a new “baseline” for measuring student achievement, King asserted that they would not affect state aid for districts, nor would they negatively impact teacher and principal evaluations.
On a local level, test scores largely fell in line with the rest of the state. In the Liverpool Central School District, about 32.1 percent of students met or exceeded the proficiency standard for the ELA exam, while 37.8 percent did so for the math.
Liverpool Central School District Superintendent Mark Potter said he was taken aback by the reported scores.
“I am somewhat surprised at the number of students scoring at or below proficiency,” Potter said. But, as the commissioner has since suggested, these are now ‘baseline data’ for future comparisons, given the Common Core Learning Standards weren’t put into place until late, and the instructional strategies and methods needed to meet these new standards haven’t fully been implemented.”
In North Syracuse, meanwhile, 28.5 percent of students met or exceeded the ELA proficiency standard, while 31.2 percent met the math proficiency standard.
North Syracuse Central School District Interim Superintendent Annette Speach said she, too, was disappointed when the scores were released.
“Even though we were warned that the scores would plummet, it was something of a shock seeing how much they did go down,” she said. “No one likes to see a decrease in scores.”
Speach said the district’s administration focused on spreading King’s message that this year’s scores should by no means be compared to those of previous years.
“We’re so used to living in that world,” she said. “We compare them and base our decisions about curriculum and everything on that. It’s a new way of looking at things, and we’re not used to that. But it’s really important that we understand, and that the community understand, these scores are not expected to be compared to the previous year’s scores.”
Speach said she did agree with many of the test’s critics.
“I do think [the state] kind of put the cart before the horse,” she said. “They tested on things that hadn’t been taught in a way that we hadn’t been teaching. Now we have to work on realigning the curriculum to teach in accordance with the test, and we’ve done a great deal of work on that over the summer.”
For North Syracuse’s full scores, including district and building aggregates, go to p12.nysed.gov/irs/ela-math/2013/2013ELAandMathemaitcsDistrictandBuildingAggregatesMedia.pdf and start on page 1270. For Liverpool, start on page 1297.
Speach’s comments hold true across the board. Many of New York’s teachers say they were — and still are — inadequately prepared to teach Common Core, and that’s what contributed to low scores.
“These tests were attached to Common Core standards, which have been incompletely rolled out in New York,” said Dr. Teresa Thayer Snyder, superintendent of the Voorheesville Central School District near Albany; the district boasts a 97 percent high school graduation rate, yet has comparable ELA and math proficiency levels to the rest of the state. Snyder, who has been a school administrator for several years, made the comments on her blog, which has been praised by education policy analyst Diane Ravitch. “The material covered large quantities of information that have not been taught, with texts well past grade level and concepts that require cognitive processing that is more typical of older students. From my point of view, after many years of studying teaching and learning — and multiple years spent working in schools — these assessments are impure science. I cannot justify impure science as a means of determining student learning or teacher effectiveness.”
Even in Liverpool, where former Superintendent Dr. Richard Johns implemented Essential and Enduring Learnings” or E2s to bring the curriculum into line with CCLS in 2010, Potter said the district was unprepared for the shift to Common Core.
“In March 2012, we began to converse with staff about the shifts needed in both ELA and math; these changes for the content areas of ELA and math provided the major professional development focus over the past 18 months. We also incorporated “literacy” expectations into all other disciplines, especially considering the CCLS response/expectations to non-fiction content and the inter-disciplinary approach for cross-content,” Potter said. “We provided teachers with classroom ideas and instructional methodology that is both research based and teacher-tested. [But] many of the textbooks, consumables, etc. are not aligned with the CCLS, nor do [the state’s] resources fully meet with teacher’s classroom needs. It is likely we will need to adopt, adapt, refer to and modify all available resources to fully meet the implementation needs of all students.”
Snyder, whose blog posts have gone viral, even questioned whether Common Core was all the state was making it out to be.
“The Common Core standards are being widely heralded as the best thing to happen in education — a message initiated by the author of the same standards,” she wrote. “Truthfully, we don’t know if they are better than what we have had, we won’t know for several years. I would take considerably more comfort in this optimistic view if it were not rooted in the verbiage of their architect. What has been accomplished here is a phenomenal marketing job — so much spin about so little substantive work, with no research base to support the claims.”
Speach, on the other hand, who was a principal and a teacher in North Syracuse before taking over as interim superintendent last month, said she did believe Common Core represented a positive shift.
“I do think it’s a move in the right direction. The idea that this is a movement across the state and a movement across the nation to make our expectations in terms of teaching and learning consistent is a move in the right direction,” she said. “We need to increase our expectations. Our students have to be ready to move into the real world, whether that’s college or work. We have to beef up what we’re doing in order to have our students be successful.”
But the means by which those standards are tested, critics say, leaves something to be desired.
“I think the state assessments do provide valuable information for students, teachers, programs and consistency,” Potter said. “But the Common Core assessments only provide a glimpse of the year-long growth each student has experienced. We are now required to identify the student statistic on college and career readiness by examining the total number of students achieving mastery in math and ELA (75 and 80 respectively) on the Regents exams. These assessments do display important information, but employers are asking for ‘soft skills’ to be incorporated, those skills such as teamwork and collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving and effective communicating. It’s not likely these CCLS assessments have incorporated any of these needed skills yet. So, as we roll out our next steps, it is vital we understand the expectations needed for our students through the curriculum, adjust our instruction to meet the needs of students by providing our staff with appropriate professional development and guidance and utilizing best practices identified in other classrooms, at other schools, and in other districts.”
For more on Common Core, visit engageny.org.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.