April 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Trouble: Learning from the New York State Common Core Assessments | Consider the Source

Stop, put down your device or magazine, and read The New York Times article announcing the statewide results of Common Core testing in New York. New York spent a great deal of time, effort, and money preparing for its first round of assessments. Yet, as you can see, statewide “passing” grades dropped from last year’s 65 percent in math and 55 percent in English Language Arts to 31 percent in each of those subject areas this year—huge declines. Anyone who has seen the results must be thinking long and hard about such key questions as: How can Common Core implementation can be improved? What sections of the assessments were especially difficult for students? Who performed well, and why?

But what I noticed right off—and surely struck many of you—is that we need to stop talking about the Common Core State Standards in the singular. There is a whole set of distinct Common Core challenges, and we need to be clear sighted about what they are, and the tools needed to address them.

I realized some time ago that there was more than one kind of Common Core experience. For young children, in preschool or elementary, Common Core is and will be their school experience. Year after year they will be exposed to content-rich nonfiction and increasingly complex texts and vocabulary, and they will gain skills in close reading and mining textual evidence. But for the students already in middle, and especially, high school, the Common Core Standards present another challenge. The schooling they received and learned to negotiate does not match the assessments that require them to demonstrate the above-mentioned skills. We need to define the needs of students who are in free fall as well as those who are rising through the new system. That is step one. Step two is more difficult.

The New York State results put me in mind of a suggestion a principal made to me earlier this summer: we must disaggregate scores to determine which cohort is experiencing the sharpest decline. This principal, accustomed to the daily triage of deciding where to best use limited resources, recognized that the lowest scores are not seen evenly throughout our schools. The steepest drops in scores seem to be in the most challenged schools. This may seem self-evident, but it is not. The needs of students— and communities—vary. What are the needs of a school where many families have deep pockets and available resources versus the demands of a school where almost all of the support and instruction takes place within the school building? And the issue is not just the burdens the students face, but school policies. In my experience, struggling schools too often turn to programs—teaching scripts, mandated curricula, and (very) limited and structured reading requirements. The cure makes the ailment worse.

Here’s a project for those reading this column: Can we compare the Common Core outcomes of schools with parallel demographics, a first set with accredited full-time school librarians against another that uses aides and volunteers, or in which the librarian essentially checks out books? Does a librarian make a difference in outcomes? How? We all need to know that—but we won’t find out until we look past the headlines and into the numbers.

What’s to be done? In one sense, I think the New York results are encouraging. The Common Core standards were initiated because high school graduates were not prepared for the next stage in their lives. The recent assessments have allowed us to examine those gaps while the students are still in our buildings. We have time to help these students. But what resources must we adopt to do so? How can the deep thinking and engaged reading required by the Common Core standards be effectively taught in the schools where there the pass rate was between 0 to 5 percent? Can we develop Common Core assessments that address vocational needs? I can’t be the first person to ask these questions. I’m eager to learn what kinds of programs and interventions you have seen that are effective, ineffective, or produce middling results. Surely there are innovators and researchers who are blazing trails, testing ideas, and pointing the way for the rest of us.

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Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.



  1. Anni West LaPrise says:

    From what I have learned from working with the standards of Common Core, schools that don’t have school libraries will not be able to meet the new standards. I can help my teachers and students because I am a trained librarian that build a collection that is rich in material especially non fiction. I have had a budge to do that. But the districts that surround mine in Michigan have cut out the library and one charter school never had any. If you dig into the test scores, the question need to be asked is “Does the students have the resources to become good readers? If the answer is no, how can they do well on the test.

    • marc aronson says:

      Perfect — we need to gather data on performance in schools with and without librarians — and make sure admins see it.

  2. T. M. Michelena says:

    My mother and I work at a K-8 school in a lower-middle class neighborhood of New York City, and a limited collection and budget certainly affected how much we were able to help our teachers and students. I was able to compensate somewhat by building up an collection of reliable web-based resources, though those can only go so far and are not always a viable solution – particularly when many of our older teachers are still uncomfortable with technology.

    • marc aronson says:

      what were some of the resources you used, would be great to build up a resource guide that we could share.