What New York learns from Kentucky about Common Core education

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ALBANY—When New York’s education officials wanted to know just how serious an impact the new, more difficult state exams would have on student proficiency scores this year, they looked to Kentucky.

They guessed scores would drop by 30 percent, based on Kentucky’s results using similar exams in 2012, when it became the first state to test based on the new Common Core standards. They turned out to be right.

Now, scores are in for Kentucky’s second year of tougher assessments, and the indicators, for what they’re worth, are grim: students there showed little improvement.

Education officials expect New York students to experience similarly modest growth, if any, predicting that more dramatic improvements won’t be seen for three to five years.

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“I was encouraged to see that Kentucky made incremental progress, and I would expect to see, over the next few years, incremental progress in New York,” State education commissioner John King said in a phone interview with Capital. “As schools and teachers move forward with implementation of the Common Core, I would expect, over time, educators will get more familiar with the standards, and they will get better at adapting their materials to the needs of their students.”

While the state cites Kentucky (in the course of lowering expectations here), critics of Common Core implementation, in particular the main statewide teachers’ union, contend that the comparison is flawed.

New York State United Teachers president Richard Iannuzzi is calling for a three-year moratorium on using the test results for “high-stakes” decisions, such as whether to promote a student or discipline a teacher.

He said it’s not accurate to use Kentucky as a comparison, arguing that in New York, teachers didn’t have access to curriculum modules or textbooks until just before or even after the exams. The education department argues that the state began providing districts with materials and resources years before the tests.

“One [state] is improving from a fully implemented Common Core now in their second year, and the other one is growing off 10 percent to 20 percent [implementation] of Common Core,” Iannuzzi said, speaking of Kentucky and New York, respectively. “You’re not going to have something reliable across the board.”

The second year of exams in Kentucky brought mixed results. Forty-four percent of elementary students were proficient in math in 2013, improving from 40 percent in 2012. That’s compared to 73 percent proficiency in 2011, before the state began giving the Common Core-based assessments.

High school students, though, saw a decline on math scores in the second year of the new exams. Thirty-six percent passed math in 2013, compared to 40 percent in 2012. On previous exams, 46 percent of students were proficient.

The dial for middle-school math scores didn’t move between 2012 and 2013; 41 percent of students were proficient in both years. Before the Common Core tests, 65 percent of students were proficient.

Similarly, in reading, all three age groups saw significant declines in the first year of the new exams, and results in the second year were flat or increased by a few points.

In New York, just 31 percent of third through eighth graders scored proficient or higher on new, Common Core-aligned language arts and math exams, which were administered in April. That’s down from 2012, when 55 percent were proficient in language arts and 65 percent were proficient in math.

New York’s five largest cities reported lower scores on the new exams than the statewide average, and minorities, students with disabilities and those who speak languages other than English fared even worse.

New York and Kentucky’s exams are different, as are the processes used to determine proficiency, but they are both based on the Common Core, a set of standards that has been adopted by nearly every state.

King has said the first year of exams would set a new baseline by which to gauge how prepared students will be upon graduation for college and the contemporary job market.

The Common Core is widely supported by educators, who argue it provides a deeper understanding of course material and promotes problem-solving and critical thinking skills. But some groups representing superintendents, parents and teachers rallied before and after the April exams, claiming that students were being tested on the material before they learned it in their classrooms.

Kentucky’s education commissioner, Terry Holliday, said the state has learned lessons from its first two years of testing from which the country can benefit. Many of the remaining states will begin testing this year, one year behind New York and two years behind Kentucky.

Holliday said the exam results and teachers’ anecdotal evidence show weaknesses in elementary reading and middle-school math in Kentucky. He said New York’s schools should identify where students lack the requisite skills for the more challenging coursework and focus there.

He said working to improve teachers’ skills is important, and King said New York is also focusing intensely on professional development.

“It’s overall growth, but not fast enough,” Holliday said, reacting to the second year of results in his state. “We are going to have to really beef up teacher training and support to make the kind of gains we need to be making to get back into a larger percentage of kids being college- and career-ready.”

Bob Lowry, deputy director of the state Council of School Superintendents, said he’d hoped to see better results from Kentucky. But he said New York might have faced more challenges in its first year than Kentucky, bringing down scores, and the state might have better resources going into its second year.

“Because we look at Kentucky as the trial run at this, or the canary in the coal mine on implementing Common Core-based tests, I was actually disappointed to see that Kentucky didn’t have stronger gains in year two,” Lowry said. “But the fact that they did not doesn’t mean we won’t.”