Student Testing: Ups and Downs, but Achievement Gap Persists

Student Testing: Ups and Downs, but Achievement Gap Persists

Published On: 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Last month, students in 3rd through 8th grades across New York State completed state tests. The results will be more carefully scrutinized than ever before: With the tests now aligned with the new Common Core curriculum, many observers are expecting pass rates to drop. Teachers are particularly concerned as this is the first year that test scores will feed into their evaluations.

Around the same time, the state released results from last year’s tests broken down by students’ economic status and race and ethnicity. This exercise is always sobering, as it points out the stubborn disparities in performance – the recent data are no different. The persistently lower performance of low-income, African American and Hispanic students is troubling: For example, the performance of low-income 4th graders on math was 27 percentage points lower than all other students (55% passing vs. 82%). With the new, Common Core-aligned tests this year, will pass rates fall across the board? What new information might they give us about the achievement gap?

It’s not the first time the state has upped the ante on testing, of course. And with the recent push-back against testing, it’s worth revisiting the history. As recently as 20 years ago, New York had very little in the way of rigorous testing or accountability for schools. Students in 3rd and 6th grade took relatively simple tests in core subjects, and high school students went into 1 of 2 tracks: Regents exams and diplomas, or very rudimentary Regents Competency Tests and local diplomas.

In the mid-1990s, New York implemented more rigorous tests in 4th and 8th grades and began phasing out the competency tests and requiring all students to pass Regents exams. The state also began publishing School Report Cards listing test results and other data on every school. Under President Bush, the accountability movement went national, as No Child Left Behind act required testing in 3rd through 8th grades and mandated that schools report not just aggregate performance but also student performance based on economic status, race and ethnicity, disability and English language learner status.

These developments were painful but important: By making data on performance of all groups by school visibly public, they supported the notion that offering poor and minority students a sub-standard education was unacceptable. Under New York’s accountability system, schools are required to make progress on test results with all groups of students, which has led to citations and school closures, the merits of which can be debated. Over the last several years, the state has worked to increase the rigor of the tests and required students to answer more questions correctly in order to pass. And the push for accountability has now made its way directly to teachers, who will be evaluated this year in part on how much growth they attain on student tests and other assessments.

Whether we’ve gone too far with testing and accountability is not a question that can be answered here. What is clear from the data is that low-income, African American and Hispanic students continue to struggle to meet ever-increasing standards. Take the examples of the state’s 4th grade math and English exams, which were revised in 2010 along with the rest of the elementary and middle school testing battery. The passing thresholds were increased, so that students had to complete more of the test correctly in order to pass, after the state’s research indicated the tests were not accurately assessing current skills.

As the chart shows, passing rates were lower among low income, African American and Hispanic students (the bottom 3 lines) even before the revisions in 2010. Student Performance on Grade 4 Math

Passing rates for those 3 groups plummeted more than 30 points in 2010, while other groups experienced less dramatic declines. Since then, gains among those 3 groups have been higher than the rest of the population, but the achievement gap remains.

The results for English are similar – declines in 2010 of more than 20 points among the 3 lowest performing groups but less subsequent improvement, though the passing rate for African American students did rise 5 points by 2012.

Student Performance on Grade 4 English

For the most part, these trends hold true at the local level. To see how students in the Mid-Hudson Valley performed, visit the Academic Achievement section of the Community Profile.

We can thank the testing and accountability movement for a better understanding of just how stark the achievement gap is, but we haven’t made progress in closing it. It seems clear the tests have gotten harder, so even though passing rates among low-income, African American and Hispanic students aren’t higher in 2012 relative to 2000, we can claim some progress. Hopefully the Common Core will not only raise the bar higher, but also help us get more children over it.

-A +A
Find us on Facebook