PPI Series: Making Sense of the Controversy Over Raising Education Standards: Redefining Proficiency

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part seven of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State

Based on the publicity that the issue has received in recent years, one might think that standards and testing were new to our state, or that the number of tests administered by the state had suddenly increased.  But New York has been administering standardized tests for 150 years and has had learning standards since 1996, as shown in the timeline below.  The last time the state added a new mandatory test was about a decade ago, when the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind/NCLB) began requiring every state to administer ELA and math tests in grades 3 through 8.   The number of tests that the state administers has essentially remained the same since then.  What has changed is the level of performance that the Board of Regents now expects from students in order for those students to be considered “proficient.”  And because a test is used to measure mastery of the standards, the state’s ELA and math tests have been rewritten to “align” with the Common Core standards.

Under NCLB, each state established its own definitions of “proficiency” at each grade level, which is how they set passing scores on those tests.  Under the definition of proficiency that New York had in place in 2009, 77% of children passed the ELA tests and 85% passed the math tests in grades 3-8.  Yet the state’s persistently high rates of college remediation told a different story:  fewer than 40% of New York’s students were graduating with college- and career-ready ELA and math skills.  In other words, the state was telling parents that their children were “proficient” in English and math, yet when those students eventually graduated and enrolled in college, large numbers of them were being labeled in need of remediation and forced to spend their financial aid dollars to re-take high school material.

Figure 7. New York Standards and Testing Milestones

Source: NYSED, http://www.p12.nysed.gov/assessment/timeline-historyrev.pdf, http://www.p12.nysed.gov/ciai/lscorehistory.htmlhttp://www.p12.nysed.gov/newsnotes/archive/20100728.html

In 2010, the Board of Regents made a major first step towards instituting higher standards when they re-set proficiency cut scores against college readiness benchmarks.  This means that a student is now rated “proficient” on the grades 3-8 ELA and math tests only if that student is considered on track to graduate from high school and to be able to enter college without needing remedial courses.  The percentage of students scoring “proficient” or above fell sharply, and is now closely in line with college- and career-readiness rates—earning New York top marks from education reform advocates for its transparency:  New York has opted to tell the unvarnished truth about whether its students are prepared for the world they will face when they leave school.

Criticism of New York’s move to higher standards has focused on (1) the speed of the rollout, and (2) the use of the Common Core-aligned assessments as the basis for making decisions about individual students or educators.  Many parents and educators have argued that New York should have implemented higher standards gradually, starting with Kindergarteners and adding one grade each year thereafter.  The state’s position is that all students will face higher standards in the world of work, and that New York cannot afford to write off an entire generation while our schools raise education standards at a comfortable pace.

Figure 8: New York is Phasing in the Common Core Standards Over 12 Years

Please click here to read part six in this ongoing series.

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