New York State Test Results: Uninterpretable But a Portent of the Future (by Sandra Stotsky)

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In the original version of David Steiner’s talk on the meaning of the drop in test scores in New York State, he says:

“The truth we are now trying to tell, for the first time, is relative to something called college- and career-readiness, roughly equivalent to the ability to enter a community college without the need for remediation.”

That statement is also in the version appearing in his Education Next blog.

Something happened to this truth in his op-ed in the New York Post on August 8, 2013. The truth is still relative to something called college-and career-readiness, but that concept is now “roughly equivalent to the ability to enter and succeed in college.” Not “community college.” Two very different meanings and educational goals.

The “truth” is at the heart of the problem most critics have with Common Core; it tries, unsuccessfully, to straddle both meanings and goals. Steiner believes that “if we are going to reduce the vast gap between high-school graduation standards and college- and career-readiness,…high-school graduation standards will have to rise.” But when grade 11 tests based on Common Core’s standards are given across this country, low scores will not mean that high school graduation standards are rising or that Common Core’s standards are rigorous.

First of all, schools will be using a “college readiness” level that is “minimal” and for “non-selective colleges.” That is the way Common Core’s level was described by Jason Zimba, the lead writer for Common Core’s mathematics standards, according to the official minutes of a public meeting. That level is not very different from the level for high school graduation today. What will be different is that students deemed “college ready” will get credit for whatever freshman courses they take in those non-selective colleges even when they know no more than freshmen today who are placed in remedial coursework.

Second, we will need to examine the quality of all the test items for the grade 11 test, as well as the cut scores used on that test and in the past decade on high school end-of-course or exit tests. We need to determine the extent to which student scores reflect problems with poor or inappropriate test items and a sudden change to a much higher cut score.

We can have a meaningful rise in high school graduation standards only after we separate high school graduation standards from college admission standards. The latter should mean in mathematics that freshmen are capable of taking calculus and majoring in science, finance, economics, and other mathematics-dependent fields if they wish. In fact, a mathematics professor who teaches at the University of Massachusetts/Lowell, Charles Ormsby, has recently proposed trigonometry as the college readiness level related to credit-bearing freshman courses. College admission standards should also mean that students read at the upper high school level—the result of an intellectually appropriate secondary English curriculum—and are capable of studying college-level textbooks.

Many will argue that such a level in mathematics and reading is unreasonably high and that a large number of students won’t be able to meet those standards. But maybe students who can’t meet a mathematics and reading standard that means authentic college-readiness should have alternative high schools and high school curricula to choose from, as in Massachusetts with 30 regional career/technical high schools available. This country doesn’t need more college graduates; it needs a more competent work force in all areas of the labor market. Such a work force will result from academically strengthening all pre-school programs and K-12 public schools and also providing choices among different kinds of high schools to all middle school students.