How Low Can you Go?! Scoring “well below proficient” on New York State Tests

Published by Robin Jacobowitz on

by Fred Smith, retired administrative analyst with the New York City public school system, with Robin Jacobowitz, Director of Education Projects at the Benjamin Center.
Each year, the New York State Education Department releases a statement summarizing how well students performed on exams in English Language Arts (ELA) and math. The April 2018 tests were given to nearly one million students statewide. In September, SED announced that 45.2 percent of students were proficient on the ELA tests, an increase of 5.4 percent over last year.

But that still leaves 54.8 percent who were not—over half of the 966,000 students who took the ELA. Who are these kids, the majority who do not meet the standard of proficiency? And what do their scores reveal about the test?

Our recently reported research, New York State’s School Tests are an Object Lesson in Failure, has focused on students’ floundering over a significant part of the ELA—the written, or constructed response questions. We were particularly interested in the students who received zeroes on that set of questions, indicating complete befuddlement when they tried to provide intelligible answers.

In this post, we look at the big picture, children’s overall performance on the ELA from 2012 to 2018, and further investigate the kids that the New York State Testing Program is leaving behind. They are the ones who, in SED’s terms, do not even meet basic proficiency standards on the tests.

As in our previous studies, we focus on children in grades 3 and 4, the youngest test takers. Further, it is important to note that there have been significant changes to the test itself in recent years—a new test publisher, fewer questions, and unlimited time to complete the exams—that thwart comparison and confound interpretation of the results from year to year, particularly the latter years.  Nevertheless, it is instructive to look at outcomes over time.

But first: A quick explanation of how SED gauges proficiency. The testing program places students into one of four performance levels, each indicative of the degree to which students meet the learning standards for their grade. Level 4 means that students are excelling. Level 3 denotes that a student’s test performance meets the standards. Students falling within the range of Level 2 are considered not proficient.

SED documentation describes kids reaching Level 1 in this way: “Students performing at this level are well below proficient for their grade. They demonstrate limited knowledge, skills and practices embodied by the NYS P-12 Common Core Learning Standards for ELA/Literacy that are considered insufficient for the expectations at this grade.”

Let’s examine the makeup of the students in Level 1. While SED reports performance at all levels, its annual announcement of the test scores highlights children who are succeeding rather than those who are falling behind. We instead choose to look at the under-reported part of the story; the “Level 1” children who score well below proficiency.

New York State All Students

• Grade 3. As expected, there was an increase in the percentage of Level 1 students (by 22 points) between 2012 and 2013, coinciding with the introduction of Common Core-aligned testing. In 2013, more than one-third (36 percent) were deemed to be well below proficient. In 2014 and 2015, the percentage remained high (37 percent). It was lower in 2016 (27 percent), when students were given unlimited time to complete the ELA, and remained close (28 percent) in 2017. In 2018, Level 1s were at 18 percent.

• Grade 4. The data for 4th grade students traced a similar pattern. There was a 22-point difference in L1s between 2012’s nine percent and the 30-31 percent registered from 2013 to 2015. Fewer students were classified as Level 1 (24 percent) in 2016 and 2017 when children were no longer working against the clock. Last year, 20 percent of the test population was well below proficient.

New York State Subgroups

The findings presented above are a composite of the underlying scores obtained by the groups who comprise the test population. For certain vulnerable groups, the percentage of students at Level 1 was well below the average.

• Grade 3. In 2013, two-thirds of English Language Learners (ELLs) and 74 percent of students with disabilities (SWDs) were put in the category of Level 1. And close to half of black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students were rated Level 1. By 2018, the percentage of L1s was in the 40 percent range for ELLs and SWDs, while nearly 25 percent of black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students scored at that level.

• Grade 4. In 2013, about 70 percent of ELLs and SWDs, and around 40 percent of black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students were deemed well below proficient. By 2018, the percentages were less severe. Still, nearly half of the ELLs and SWDs were well below proficient, while approximately 25 percent of children of color and economically disadvantaged kids also had scores in the L1 category.

In summary, it appears that student outcomes, as it pertains to the percentage of students scoring Level 1, are approaching pre-Common Core levels. In 2012, in grade 3, 14 percent of all students scored at Level 1; the percentage was 18 percent in 2018. Likewise, grade 4 showed nine percent in 2012 and 20 percent in 2018. In between these endpoints, the percentages reached a peak between 2013 and 2015 and appeared to decline in 2016 and 2017—and more so in 2018.

Defenders of the testing program would say that the imposition of higher standards has started to pay off, perhaps, after an incubation period. Critics would say the dramatic movement in the results has had little to do with standards or children learning to think critically and, more likely, that large shifts in the data signal changes in the testing process itself – a new testing company, shorter tests, fewer testing days, revised scaling and untimed testing.

What remains clear is that far too many students are falling well below proficiency. And especially that the achievement gap—between outcomes for white students and students who are not economically disadvantaged vs. English Language Learners, students with disabilities, students of color, and economically disadvantaged students—remains especially stark. And nothing in the current testing regime addresses this reality. The percentage of Level 1s paints that sad picture all too clearly.

1 Comment

James Shaughnessy · April 30, 2019 at 5:59 pm

It’s hard to believe a 20 percentage point drop in Level 1 for Grade 3 Students with Disabilities between 2017 and 2018., a drop of 32%.

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