State education officials told us that scores on this year's Maryland School Assessment exams would go down, and that they most certainly did. Schools state-wide embarked last fall on their first full year of instruction tied to the Common Core standards, but the tests this spring were still tied to the old curriculum. The mismatch was such an obvious issue that many, from parents to some candidates for governor, advocated skipping the tests altogether on the grounds that they would be a waste of time and money. But now that we have the results, it is clear that the data are not worthless. On the contrary, they show some warning signs for Maryland's educators as the transition to a new, more rigorous curriculum continues.
It's not unusual for a state to see declines in test scores as it transitions from one curriculum to another. The same thing happened a decade ago when Maryland switched from one set of exams (known as the MSPAP) to the MSAs. Part of the reason is that, over time, teachers become more adept at teaching to the test — a phenomenon that's not quite as sinister as it sounds. This isn't a matter of teachers advising students always to pick B on multiple choice exams but rather having a better sense of what kinds of questions will be asked and in what way; assuming the exams do a good job of covering the material we want children to learn, that's a good thing. But if teachers were truly focused on teaching to the Common Core standards this year, that wouldn't have happened. We also should not discount the fact that teachers and students clearly got the message that this year's exams did not count. As such, it's quite likely that many did not take them seriously.
But what should be of particular concern to state education officials is that the declines were by no means uniform. Baltimore City's declines in pass rates were profoundly greater than those of the state as a whole. City elementary students posted a 22 percentage point drop in math and a 5 point drop in reading, compared to statewide declines of 8 points in math and 2 in reading. The achievement gap statewide between African American students and the overall population jumped by nearly 5 percentage points in elementary school math. The achievement gap for students with limited English proficiency increased in both subjects in every grade tested. For whatever reason, groups of students who have historically lagged behind their peers are having an even more difficult time with this transition.
The drops in math are a particularly troublesome problem. State officials explained that they expected larger declines in that subject because concepts in mathematics build on one another in a more direct way than they do in reading, and the Common Core standards scramble the sequencing with which mathematical concepts are taught. As The Sun's Erica Green reported on Sunday, more than 30 mathematical concepts were included on this year's MSA across the six grade levels that had not been taught that year in those grades. For example, Ms. Green wrote, percentages, rates of increase and decrease, discounts and sales tax used to be taught in the eighth grade, and eighth graders were still tested on it this year, but that lesson is now taught in the seventh grade. This begs the question: When will this year's eighth graders ever learn that lesson? Will they be expected to figure it out on their own?
In the long run, the Common Core standards will be an improvement. They focus on higher-order thinking skills and are more closely tailored to the kind of education students need to succeed in higher education and the work world today. State officials have always known that the transition would pose some difficulties, but what this year's data underscore is that those difficulties are not being felt uniformly. And perhaps not surprisingly, those who are experiencing more difficulties are, in many cases, those who were behind already. The transition, particularly in mathematics, is going to require students to pick up some concepts more quickly or independently. It will be at least another two years before the state has what it considers truly reliable data from tests tied to the Common Core. In the meantime, it needs to be vigilant about what students and schools are falling behind and prepared to provide additional guidance and resources where it's needed.
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