Are Test Scores Proving Fears About Common-Core High School Math Correct?

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 06, 2015 3 min read
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As I wrote last week, Smarter Balanced test scores released by Idaho, Oregon, and Washington state show that students are largely beating states’ projections for student performance—except for on the high school math tests, where students in all three states fell short of their predicted performance.

Did experts warn us this was coming?

There are a few important conditions to note. First, the gaps between states’ projections for high school students’ math scores and their actual performance, as measured by proficiency rates, are relatively small. The largest gap between prediction and reality was just 4 percentage points in Washington state, where 29 percent of high school juniors scored proficient compared to the state prediction of 33 percent. Second, compared to their other predictions for other grade-level tests, the three states predicted relatively low proficiency rates for high school math, suggesting that officials knew that high school math could prove particularly difficult for students.

Conversely, on the other Smarter Balanced tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards, when students exceeded expectations, they did so by relatively big margins. For example, in Oregon, 58 percent of 7th graders were proficient on the English/language arts exam, whereas the state had predicted that just 38 percent of them would be. And in Washington state, 54 percent of 4th graders scored proficient on the math exam, instead of the projection of 37 percent by the students.

So clearly, the high school math scores represent something of an outlier. What might explain the results?

  • In February, my coworker Liana Heitin wrote a story, “Common Core Seen Falling Short in High School Math,” in which one of the lead writers of the common core math standards, University of Arizona Professor William McCallum, and others expressed concerns about the amount of time that was devoted to creating the high school math standards. They also worried about the depth of the standards in high school.

    “The amount of time given to the high school standards was definitely inadequate,” Hung-Hsi Wu, a professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, who served on the standards’ development team, told Liana for the story. “We were so busy with K-8.” And McCallum said that getting high school math right was “just hard.”

  • Concerns were also expressed about the amount of material high school math teachers were expected to cover under the common core, which for high school was organized math by topic instead of grade level as in lower grades. “I don’t know that the authors of the common core were able to achieve the kind of focus [in high school] they were able to achieve in the early grades,” Bill Barnes, a secondary math coordinator for the 52,000-student Howard County public school system in Maryland, told Liana.
  • There’s a belief among some experts that Algebra I under the common core is more difficult than under previous standards, as Liana reported just last month.
  • Finally, there’s the issue of whether the test platforms themselves impacted student performance. Noting that students generally didn’t work through math problems on computers during the academic year, David Foster, the executive director of the Silicon Valley Math Initiative, told Education Week that, “It’s such an artificial idea that now it’s test time, so you have to solve these problems on computers.”

The three states’ test scores that were released are preliminary, and could change after the final scores are released later this year. And given the narrow margins separating high school students’ math performance from predicted results, other states that release results later might find their high school students beating predictions. But math performance for older students on common-core test could quickly become a big topic for debate as more scores come out throughout this year.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.