A higher bar is exactly that — a higher hurdle to overcome. Yesterday, New York announced the results of its latest round of state testing, the first measuring students against a higher, Common Core-aligned test, and perhaps unsurprisingly, fewer students were able to clear the new bar. Statewide, only 31 percent of students were considered proficient in math; last year, it was 65 percent. In New York City, the largest district, just 30 percent were proficient, down from 60 percent last year and a high of 82 (under a different test) in 2009.
Many — including the state commissioner of education, John King — have already stressed that the new tests are only a baseline. That fact, however, needs to be reiterated. This test was Common Core-aligned, which is what students will be learning in New York from here on out, but it will only be in place for a few years. In the 2014-2015 school year, New York will begin administering the PARCC exam, along with 20 other states. Many other states will be administering the Smarter-Balanced test, a similar exam. These new tests are more rigorous, aligned to the Common Core, better equipped to measure actual learning — and more expensive. A few states, like Georgia, Alabama, and Oklahoma, have already dropped out, citing costs. Other states, like Kentucky, are wavering.
Thus, the scores out of New York can easily be used by sabre-rattlers worried about the effects of implementing Common Core. But what the scores actually show is a clearer picture of achievement. It's not a pretty picture — the performance gaps between white and Asian and black and Hispanic students were certainly troubling — but it's a far more accurate diagnosis. The first step in solving a problem is defining a problem. More stringent tests and cut scores allow us to do just that. These tests, and these scores, help us better understand students' learning, and will help us better educate students going forward.