Just in time for the start of a new school year, the New York State Education Department has released the scores on the 3-8 ELA and math assessments. All kinds of efforts are being made to interpret these results and accept them as the new baseline for student achievement in a Common Core-aligned system. It is proving difficult to understand these dramatically lower scores. Yosmitebear struggled to find meaning in the Double Rainbow he recorded in his widely-viewed YouTube video, “What does this mean? Help Me! Too much! I don’t know what it means!” Educators, parents, and students are now struggling to understand the meaning of these new, and drastically lower, 3-8 ELA and math scores.
The leadership of the State Education Department has been trying to prepare the state for these results for quite some time. They saw what happened in Florida when dramatically lower test scores were greeted with derision and wanted to avoid this happening here, in our state. Kentucky employed a media campaign to prepare that state for lower Common Core-aligned test scores and there was less of brouhaha in that state when student scores hit the public. Commissioner John King is trying to get out in front, explaining the much lower scores this way: “…those scores are [will] be significantly lower than the 2011-12 scores. This change in scores — which will effectively create a new baseline measurement of student learning – is largely the result of the shift to assessments that measure the Common Core Learning Standards, which more accurately reflects students’ progress toward college and career readiness.”
In order to understand the scores, it is first important to remind ourselves that all of this is “made up.” There are no real measures of ELA or math or college and career readiness. Human beings have constructed assessments to somehow measure something that may or may not be a real measure. The fact that the measures and assessments (and standard scores, scale scores, and cut-points for that matter) are a human construction does not mean that they aren’t useful and important. Assessments and measures that provide feedback to teachers and schools and the public about what students are learning are important – with such information educators can make adjustments to teaching to ensure that students are learning. We have to be careful, however, to assign too much importance to these test scores. They are made up – which is to say that educators and psychometricians have constructed them based on some understanding about teaching and learning in our schools. Just like any form of data, the test scores have no absolute meaning themselves. They are numbers we made up to express all of the data collected in the assessments. We set up systems with numbers so we have some way of looking for change in the measures over time. Data take on meaning when something occurs as a result of the data.
It is also important to keep in mind that the Common Core Learning Standards are, in many ways, different than the previous set of learning standards in the state. The state tests changed so that they are aligned with the new standards. And so, now, we are reporting how students did on a different test that is based on different things. While the headlines in the media were all about drops in scores, more accurate headlines would describe the scores as different, not lower. Different standards, different assessments, different scores.
SED doesn’t want us to focus on the comparison of the results from this year to previous results but they recognize that the comparisons are inevitable. That’s one of the reasons why they made the scale scores so different. It used to be that we reported scores in the ranges 430-790. Now scores will be in the range of 100 to 425. This makes it hard to compare this year to last. While the scale scores have changed, the 1-2-3-4 system of sorting student’s has not changed that much and that, unfortunately, allows comparisons from year to year.
The 1-2-3-4 definitions have changed a little. The four levels used to be defined this way:
- Level 1: Below Standard
- Level 2: Meets Basic Standard
- Level 3: Meets Proficiency Standard
- Level 4: Exceeds Proficiency Standard
Now, they four levels are defined this way:
- Level 1: Student is well below proficient for this grade level
- Level 2: Student is below proficient for this grade level
- Level 3: Student is proficient in standards for this grade level
- Level 4: Student excels in standards for this grade level
As you can see, some of the language has shifted particularly for level 2 which used to mean a student met a basic standard – but that is no longer the case. Level 2 now translates to a student as not demonstrating minimum standards. This has resulted in more students being considered as not meeting standards. But because the 1-2-3-4 system of ranking students continues in the new assessment scheme, the comparisons of scores from last year to this year will certainly occur.
What does this mean? Districts continue their efforts to implement the Common Core. They are already doing so, as fast as they can, so these results can’t really make schools go any faster. Hopefully, districts will not spend too much time with the released questions from the assessments. Doing so would distract us from implementation of the Common Core rather than help us. The very fact that the questions were released means that those questions will never be used again. Spending time and energy on teaching students those questions would be a waste and would divert us away from the only assessment that has any impact on student learning – formative assessment.
What does this mean? Districts may feel additional burdens to provide additional Academic Intervention Services (AIS) because the rules about students who are not meeting standards require additional support or services. While the state is not requiring that previous thresholds of AIS qualification thresholds be employed and will be providing some AIS conversion guidance, districts will feel pressure to do so. The most effective AIS, at this point in time when we have new standards and different instructional expectations, though, would be to redeploy AIS resources back to classrooms. All students will benefit from better Common Core implementation and instruction – including students who scored a “1” as well as students who scored a “3” or “4.” Spending AIS money in all classrooms is the AIS we need, right now.
What does this mean? At a political level, it is possible that these low results will provide new fodder to the Common Core critics and naysayers. The complaints seem to be increasing. So far, it seems like New York State is determined to stay the course. Time will tell whether the decision to set student scores so low will help the Common Core implementation level or hinder it.