California’s New Common Core Assessment Results Tell Us…What?

Print Share on LinkedIn More

common core cartoon / WWYD?

September 11, 2015; San Jose Mercury News

The California Department of Education recently released the results for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium’s (SBAC) Common Core assessment test, which was used for the first time to measure the performance of 3.1 million students for the 2014-15 school year. Taken on their face, the results are disturbing. Looked at more closely, they challenge the prevailing wisdom about how to improve our public educational systems.

As reported by the San Jose Mercury News:

A majority of students failed to meet state standards in math and English—with a stark racial achievement gap despite decades of efforts to close it…performance correlated with family and community wealth, language ability and ethnicity. […] While 72 percent of Asian students and 61 percent of white students statewide met or exceeded standards in English, only 32 percent of Latino students and 28 percent of African-American students matched that achievement. In math, scores were lower and the gaps wider: 69 percent of Asians, 49 percent of whites, 21 percent of Latinos and 16 percent of African-Americans met or exceeded standards. Among students from low-income families, scores also lagged. Only 31 percent met or exceeded standards in English, and 21 percent did so in math.

With the results in hand, educators, policymakers, and parents now have the challenge of deciphering what they mean. Are these poor outcomes just an artifact of changing test formats? Are they as expected, since the new test intentionally raised the bar for passing? Or do they really tell us that the strategy for “reforming” the nation’s public education system is deeply flawed?

Since this is the first year this specific test was used and its expectations are so different from previous tests, perhaps it’s just best to wait a few years before we draw any conclusions? This was the approach recommended by state education officials, who “stressed that scores from the inaugural year of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium form a baseline for future measurement, and no conclusions can be drawn” from comparing them to the results of previous state tests.

“It’s unreliable to try to make any comparison,” said Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction. “It’s apples to watermelons.”

For others, the disappointing results should be seen as a clear marker of improvement still needed. Howard Blume, writing in the L.A. Times, observed that supporters of the test felt it gave a more accurate picture of the educational challenge before us. He cited Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, who observed that this year’s results are “going to show the real achievement gap”:

We are asking more out of our kids, and I think that’s a good thing, [but] there’s no question that when we raised the bar for students that we’re going to have to support our lower-achieving students even more so than we are now.

Executive Director Joe Willhoft said, in a press release describing this year’s tests, that “because the new content standards set higher expectations for students and the new tests are designed to assess student performance against those higher standards, the bar has been raised. It’s not surprising that fewer students could score at Level 3 (passing) or higher. However, over time the performance of students will improve.”

But maybe the results are showing us that our problems lie not with students and teachers, but with our basic strategies? Maybe whether the gap is bigger is not the important part of California’s test story. The fact is that a different test continues to tell us that a serious racial and economic gap exists. Rather than being seen as a measure of individual student learning, or of teacher and school performance, it should be seen as a measure of how effective the strategy of school reform has been.

The terms of two U.S. presidents have been devoted to reforming implementing a model of school reform based on increased choice, core standards, increased testing, devaluing teachers, and privatization. Is that time not long enough to expect to see improved outcomes and the closing of gaps between groups of students? You would think so, but the California results, which mirror the recently released national SAT results, seem to tell us it’s just not working.

In looking at the meaning of the recently reported decline in SAT scores, Carol Burris pointed out that Cyndie Schmeiser, chief of assessment of the College Board, advised that the disappointing results be seen as a challenge to our approach to the problem. “Simply doing the same things we have been doing is not going to improve these numbers. This is a call to action to do something different to propel more students to readiness.”

After 15 years of a failing national strategy, her words would serve us well as we consider what California’s results should be telling us.—Marty Levine

  • The_Dumb_Money


    I’m a (white) parent of a public school student in Southern California in a “bad” school district. These test results tell us nothing new. Even under old results, the achievement gap was clear, with white students and Asian students outperforming massively (even in “bad” public schools) and with students of all races whose parents have graduate degrees massively outperforming.

    The entire premise of “school reform” is ludicrous, and always has been. Do you know what makes La Canada schools do so well? — it’s a destination school district that broke off from PUSD after Brown v. Board of Education, and before a Federal judge mandated integration of PUSD schools, and it is largely Asian and white, with highly educated parents. Put simply the data clearly show (and have shown) that about 80% of “school reform” is simply a euphemism for privatization, union busting, and teacher shaming. That’s not to say all teachers and principals in our public schools are great. Anyway, here’s the solutions:

    1) Whites and Asians need to wise up that if they are educated and sent their kids to a $1,000/month preschool, they don’t need to pay $10K-40K per year for private school, or pay 20% extra for a house in a “destination” district (unless they’re just in it for the professional networking, as many are in part);
    a) For this to happen, liberals need to get over their aversion to talking about the racial and economic disparities in education, as they relate to the educational, wealth, and time abilities of the parents of such groups, because these disparities statistically have virtually nada to do with the “quality” of the teachers or administration in a given district. It sounds racist to say: this District is fine, it just has lots of poor African-American kids in it. It’s not. Those kids are starting (in aggregate) with parents who had fewer resources to pay for preschool education, with parents who are more likely to be single parents, with parents who are less likely to be highly education. Sticking our heads in the sand does nothing.
    b) The more that high-resource families show a little a backbone and confidence, the more of those kids will go into all public schools, including the “bad” ones, and the “better” those schools will do. Moreover, teachers will have more time and resources available to devote where most needed when they have ten disadvantaged kids in their class instead of twenty-five.
    2) The Democratic Establishment, as exemplified by the wildly-misguided President Obama, need to back away from their acquiescence on “school reform” and instead make the case that this is an issue with the parents, not the kids, not the schools, that greater access to preschool is required, that money needs to be targeted into tutoring to help kids catch up.
    3) For this to happen, security in schools must always be treated extremely seriously, and Districts need plans to deal with, and expel or send to special schools, students who are repeatedly disruptive or dangerous.

    You’re a numbers guy. Take all of the results in California and plot them on an x-y axis, with ELA CAASP Proficiency rate on the x-axis, and with (on one chart) poor socioeconomic status of students in a school or district on the y-axis. Do the same with high African-American population on the y-axis, or have the y-axis exclude anyone not white or Asian. I did this for about 45 schools and school districts in California, and what you see is a pretty tight downward sloping line, with Districts like La Canada way down at the bottom right (high “performance,” high wealth), and with districts like LAUSD way up towards the upper left. It’s not a perfect correlation, but it is, shall we say, highly statistically significant.

    Brown has helped some with the effort to direct money to schools with more poor kids, but that is not enough. There needs to be an explicit acknowledgement that this problem CANNOT simply be solved with money, and instead has to be solved in no small part by actual voluntary integration of schools.

    And a note on that. One Santa Monica school I know got tons of affluent white people to attend, who then started donating money to it. That made parents in other schools in the District upset, and some “Civil Rights” group either sued or threatened to sue. Are you kidding me? That’s in no small part how we got in this pickle in the first place — way to send those kids back to private school or to the nearby (less diverse) Pacific Palisades schools, morons. That’s the sort of 60’s-style thinking that, at least in part, got us into this pickle.

    People need to think bigger than one District. They need to be thinking about the inequality that exists regionally, particularly in Southern California with its convenient little “destination cities” and its plethora of private schools, and they need to be thinking about the fact that they cannot legislate out or sue away that inequality, even if they make themselves happier by driving richer families (back) out of their own District. We need a big tent that draws all parents and all families to all schools, in the first place, and second, that welcomes them all, however they want to contribute. That means that both 30-something hipsters and engineers, and also 60-something hippies, all need to show some nads. And the conservatives basically need to be ignored, since they are saying virtually nothing useful on this issue, and have not said anything useful for, oh-I-don’t know, about twenty-five years.

  • The_Dumb_Money


    Here’s a better version. The ongoing test results are helpful in that they can — hopefully — help people move towards better solutions. This is a socio-economic problem. There needs to be an explicit policy acknowledgement that this problem cannot simply be solved with money, and it cannot be solved with charter schools, and it cannot be solved by vouchers, and it cannot be solved with lawsuits, and it cannot even be solved with new standards. It can only be solved with actions directed explicitly at the inequality itself.

    What we are seeing here, basically, is more of the same. Under old results in California, the achievement gap was extremely clear, with white students and Asian students outperforming massively (even in so-called “bad” public school districts, e.g., Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD)) and with students of all races whose parents have graduate degrees massively outperforming, no matter the school. So it remains. Governor Brown has helped some with the effort to direct extra money to schools with more disadvantaged kids, but that is not enough.

    I believe that the best thing that can solve the problem is greater socio-economic integration of the public schools. I also believe that the data from these tests create a strong additional basis for convincing people to do that voluntarily. If one takes all of the results in California and plots them on an x-y axis, with ELA CAASP Proficiency rate on the x-axis, and with poor socioeconomic status of students in a school or district on the y-axis (or based on racial disparity) one sees a very tight downward sloping line to the right, with Districts like La Canada way down at the bottom right (“high” performance, high wealth), and with districts like LAUSD way up towards the upper left (“low” performance, low wealth). It’s not a perfect correlation, but it is beyond statistically significant. It’s a fuzzy line, but a line.

    Why, we have to ask. Unions? The “best” Districts, like La Canada and South Pasadena, are all union Districts, as are the worst cities. So it’s not the unions. Bad administration? The fact that “bad” Districts like PUSD have wealthy white students performing at the same level as equivalent students in “good,” homogeneous South Pasadena shows it’s not the Districts. Educational standards? Nope, same achievement gap under Common Core, as noted above, at least so far. The only reasonable explanation is that the socioeconomic status of the parents is largely itself responsible for the results.

    We cannot solve the problem if we deny its existence. If we acknowledge its existence, it becomes clear we need greater preschool funding for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, so they can have more hope of being on equal footing when they get to kindergarten. We also need vastly more resources to help unprepared children in school, particularly in early grades. But we also need to take the strain off of our challenged Districts, by evening out their socioeconomic demographics. To do that, we need groups who have largely either 1) abandoned public schools, or 2) moved to “destination” cities like San Marino or La Canada or Pacific Palisades, to recognize that there just is no need to do so.

    Lawsuits don’t work, because they by their very (limited) nature can only target specific Districts. When Pasadena was forcibly integrated by a Federal court order, wealthy and largely white people simply fled to nearby cities, or to private schools, the population of which exploded. (And La Canada deliberately split off from PUSD before that lawsuit could be decided.)

    If such families send their kids to so-called “bad” Districts like PUSD (as mine has done), the data (now confirmed again this week) show that they should see no net loss, and potentially a gain, because money they would have spent on private school, or on a more expensive house in a “destination” District, can be spent on further enrichment. And the Districts and all students benefit enormously. It is vastly easier for a teacher in a District such as PUSD to devote more attention to underprivileged children who may be behind if he or she has ten of them in her class, rather than twenty-five. It is vastly easier to generate monetary tax and general support for a District, or for schools in California, or any state, when most of the wealthier parents are not checked out of the system. That is why cities like La Canada in California have enacted a parcel tax to fund their schools in the wake of Proposition 13, and Pasadena has not.

    I am a white, wealthy, Ivy League and graduate-school educated Millennial/Gen-X parent, as is my wife, and we have a child in PUSD (and soon to be two). That’s not because we can’t afford one of Pasadena’s or the LA area’s dozens of private schools, it’s because they are just not necessary. My child is doing extremely well in this “bad” District. Of course she is: we sent her to a $1500/month educational daycare starting when she was two (two working parents, and that’s what they cost near my wife’s office), and I taught her to read when she was four, and she knew the different between inductive and deductive reasoning by the time she got to kindergarten, because both of her parents are lawyers and that’s just how we normally talk.

    Teachers are a great resource, but we need to get rid of the idea that teachers are either magicians or dolts who hold the fate of a child in their hands. We also need to get rid of the idea that unions are the problem. We need to get rid of the idea that money alone will solve the problem (though it helps). We need to get rid of the idea that one District is “good” or “bad.” And finally, we need to get rid of the latest feel-good idea that one educational standard or another like Common Core is a magic bullet that will solve the problem (though I don’t think it hurts): while the recent release of this data did not put the nail in that coffin, it started building the coffin.

    Only when we acknowledge that there is massive structural inequality, which starts at birth, which has to do with the disparity in ability to send children to expensive daycare, with the disparity in parental education, with the disparity in parental job/marital status, with the disparity in the literacy levels of parents, can we even hope to address it head on in an honest manner. Instead, we have a nonsense debate in this country, where conservatives cling to the idea of things like vouchers, where we all are emotionally wedded to the idea of teacher-as-go-it-alone-hero, where many on both sides (though increasingly not the Right) cling to magic-bullet new educational standards as a solution. It all needs to end. This is a socioeconomic problem. It starts at birth. And the solutions have to start there as well, and they be directed at that problem all the way up the ladder through college.

    • Triumph104

      It starts at birth. And the solutions have to start there as well, and they be directed at that problem all the way up the ladder through college.

      Exactly. All children in the PUSD should be raised kibbutz-style starting at birth. Their parents can visit them in the evenings and on weekends.

      This is a socioeconomic problem.

      Err, not so fast there buddy. A black kid with a family income over $200,000 scores the same on the SAT as a white kid with a family income of $0 to $20,000. The NAEP exam given to 12th graders shows that the black children of college graduates score the same in math and reading as the white, Hispanic, and Asian children of high school dropouts. Actually, the Asians score much higher in math.

      The documentary American Promise follows two black boys admitted to the kindergarten class at Dalton, a prestigious New York prep school. One boy is the son of a doctor and a lawyer. The other is the son of an engineer and a nurse. The son of the engineer and the nurse did so poorly at the school that he is forced to leave after the 8th grade. The other boy limped through high school and got accepted to Morehouse, the University of Vermont, and Occidental, choosing Occidental.

      The Occidental kid’s father attended Stanford and Harvard Medical School and is a practicing psychiatrist. The mother attended McGill in Quebec and Columbia Law School and was the film’s documentarian. Their younger son did not get into any of the top prestigious New York schools and now attends a Quaker school in Brooklyn.