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SD K-12 Student Proficiency in Math, English Drops 30+ Points; Common Core Test Meaningless

Art Marmorstein, NSU history prof and AAN columnist, notes that the results of the first Common Core-aligned statewide standardized tests seem to suggest disaster has struck South Dakota’s K-12 schools:

Last month, South Dakota Department of Education officials gave us some shocking news about the state of our schools. Last spring’s achievement tests indicated that only 49 percent of South Dakota K-12 students are proficient in English Language Arts. In math, things are even worse: only 41 percent of students are proficient or better.

No need to worry, say our education officials: We thought things would be even worse.

And, apparently, few of us are worried, though maybe we should be. This is a dramatic decline from 10 years ago when 74 percent of South Dakota students were deemed proficient or better in math and a remarkable 82 percent were proficient in reading [Art Marmorstein, “Quiet Month at the Department of Education,” Aberdeen American News, 2015.10.07].

If words had meaning in the world of standardized tests, saying that the number of students proficient in core subjects has dropped over thirty percentage points in a decade should make us all go to parent-teacher conferences (October 22–23 for Aberdeen elementary and middle school students! Be there!) and ask what the heck happened.

But as Marmorstein recognizes, the word “proficient” doesn’t mean what it meant ten years ago. We’ve rejiggered the tests to follow all new standards with no connection to how we previously measured student achievement. It’s as if the EPA switched its fuel economy ratings from English to metric but refused to tell us that a liter is 0.2624 gallons and a kilometer is 0.6214 miles. Our Common Core test switch has thus made it impossible to take any long view of student achievement prior to 2014.

In other words, last spring’s tests are meaningless until we get several more years of testing data to put this year’s results in context.

And by the time we have that data, the Common Core fad will have run its course, just like No Child Left Behind and whatever came before that. We’ll churn policy with a new round of reforms, and Dr. Marmorstein will be able to publish a very similar lament about some new, useless standardized test.


  1. Porter Lansing 2015-10-07

    Establishing a base line doesn’t seem meaningless.

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-10-07

    It only becomes meaningful in the future, when we have data to which to compare it. Right now, it is meaningless.

  3. Ronette Guymon 2015-10-07

    Underlying motives promoting common core? Centralized, consolidated, autocratic control, cookie cutter drones, submissive and obedient following all directives and coercive influences upon command: (1) Educators – you will teach as we dictate; (2) Students – you will read, add, speak and think according to our manual.

    May work for training hunting dogs, but does not work when the next generation is twice as wise with regards to the “real word” than their parents and teachers were at the same age; probably three times as wise as school administrators at the same age.

    Common core is belly flop from the high diving board! Tell the “SD Secretary of DOE” to place it in “File 13” before: (1) More educators move out of state to a school district paying educators substantially higher salaries and allowing them to practice their profession w/o dictation; and (2) More parents do likewise for similar income reasons and to provide their kids with an educational opportunity allowing them to think.

    And we wonder why there are less than 900,000 people living in South Dakota where all the right answers and what is best for everyone is only really known by the self-proclaimed enlightened ones who are politically well-connected — like the double-dipping superintendent from Mitchell, Supt Joey Graves.

    The Irish

  4. Paul Seamans 2015-10-07

    If we get rid of Common Core wouldn’t that mean we wouldn’t have to face the fact that test scores are in a free fall?

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-10-07

    Paul, kinda, yeah!

    But remember (and Marmorstein explains this with some rigorous academic terms in his column): the test scores aren’t in free fall. “Free fall” assumes you can draw a trajectory from previous scores to current scores. Because the current tests are completely new, are aligned with different standards, and were not calibrated or cross-validated with preceding tests, we can’t draw that trajectory. Saying that test scores went down this year is like saying Athlete Joe is performing worse because he only jumped 6’5″ this year compared to 18’8″ last year… although last year he did long jump and this year he’s doing high jump.

  6. jerry 2015-10-07

    When the language starts to disintegrate, that is the end of the culture. For right wing ideologues they must ask themselves is this the way of the future, to not be able to communicate in ways that are more than just grunts and pointing. If teachers are not paid to teach the children, how will they be able to even read to instructions on operating machinery or finding ways to face the challenges of the fast changing future? Daugaard and his henchmen think of the year 1592 as their future goals where we all will use the streets for our sewers while using forced bleeding to cure our ills.

  7. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-10-07

    Ah, Jerry, “proficiency” just doesn’t mean what it used to. ;-)

  8. Travis Wicks 2015-10-07

    Common Core isn’t the reason teachers are leaving the state or the profession altogether… but it sure isn’t drawing anyone into the profession either.

    The flaw in Common Core is not necessarily the standards (although I do disagree with some of the philosophy behind it), the flaw in my opinion is the same flaw that was in No Child Left Behind: that standardization of assessment and instruction will improve quality of education or be an authentic indicator of student success.

    A true assessment system would look at the progress each student makes from beginning of year to end of year, and then year to year. Within a class, students’ knowledge base and abilities vary widely. It’s not accurate or fair to assess each of those students with the goal that each student reaches the same educational output.

    Why can’t we determine success for students and teachers by setting individual targets for academic growth in a school year. An example would be a 5th grader reading at a 3rd grade level and a 5th grader reading at a 6th grade level in the same class at the beginning of a school year. I would rate a successful year for the lower reader to be at an upper 4th grade level by the end of the year. The advanced reader should be at about a 7th grade reading level by the end of the year. I would want to see more progress achieved for the lower reader than the more advanced reader.

    Even though the lower reader wouldn’t be “proficient” for 5th grade reading, that student would have learned more and made more progress than the advanced reader. You can’t assess that with a standardized test. Those results don’t show up in any form of mandated assessment. And even though you got the student closer to the level of “proficient” than that child had been in prior years, it looks like you failed as a teacher.

    I never have believed that the standardized tests (NCLB, Smarter-Balanced, etc.) are worth anything more than a snapshot of what a student knows on the day they take the test. I want them to do well, but I don’t judge their achievement or mine by the results of a test that isn’t designed to assess academic growth.

  9. Craig Guymon 2015-10-08

    Common Core is another boondoggle of autocratic control attempting to dictate how educators shall teach and manufacture “robotic drones” who shall read, speak, add and think in a reflexive, submissive and obedient manner as decreed by “All Knowing” corrupt bureaucrat cronies who are leaching in more taxpayers dollars. CC needs to filed on top of NCLB in File 13.

    Back to Supt Joe Graves:

    KELOLAND NEWS broadcast of Supt Joe’s “double dipping” breach of his MSD 17-2 employment contract; fraudulent math; and his displayed insulated and protected arrogance exposed Deacon Joe’s dishonorably deceitful core values. Should have every honorable Mitchell resident demanding the board fire Supt Joe.

    Due to his lack of integrity and candor, Supt Joey cannot be trusted. How many other MSD 17-2 contracts has Supt Joey breached? How many tens of millions of taxpayers dollars has Supt Joey secretly ear tagged for his cronies? How many childhood dreams has he stolen to silence parental objections while he covered and concealed his and his cronies’ backsides?

    Apparently, the Mitchell Regime is controlling local newspaper again? “Daily Wipe” silent after publishing Supt Joe’s CYMA email – apparently being censored by two-faced Mitchell Elitists? On Sibby Online, Steve Sibson posted that $2,275 reported in the September 14, 2015 minutes of the Mitchell School district to “Mid Central Ed Coop” for “SD Innovative Lab days”. Any more threads entangling Supt Joe and Mid Central with taxpayers dollars?

    Mid Central board minutes show “Catherine Raak” (Supt Joe’s daughter) receiving thousands of dollars from Mid Central 9/9/13 to 9/8/15 for educational services delivered from Mitchell as a “stay at home mom”. Son-in-law Nate Raak math teacher employed by MTI. Any MTI adjunct teaching pay being ear tagged under the radar by Supt Joe for his family members? Any MTI funds being funneled to Mid Central? Is there a sign on a wall in Supt Joe’s garage stating, “Belly up to the taxpayers coffers — I have the keys — and a rubberstamping board”?


    Badger, Out!

  10. MJL 2015-10-08

    A diagnostic tool is never useless, unless of course if it wasn’t design to appropriately measure what is needed, doesn’t provide information in a way that can be used and understood by those implementing the test, doesn’t have a method to differentiate the different patients, and uses arbitrary goals that are not based in evidence as its baseline. So, in the case of the Smarter Balanced test, they are useless.

    My understanding is that the results (data) doesn’t break results down to the standard level, it doesn’t isolate students that took 3 minutes to complete the entire English portion of the test. The target/goals have not been clearly shared with anyone.

    Travis is right. These tests are snapshots that could be used to provide some information for teacher with additional tweaking because the teacher could apply what they know about the human being to the test results. When you remove the human being (the student) from the process, you weaken any of the usefulness of the data.

  11. Margaret 2015-10-08

    I agree with Travis. When I had the chance to teach “remedial” English skills to students entering college who were not prepared to do college level work, I worked with another teacher to use techniques from her adult learner GED classes. We measured skill levels at the beginning and end of the class for each student. One student, who started out reading at the 3rd grade level, and who really applied himself, was reading and writing at the 8th grade level when the class finished. His skills advanced 5 grade levels in 15 weeks. At the 8th grade level he wasn’t considered successful enough to continue into Freshman English, but I considered him – and our system – very successful. With continued effort, he would be college ready within one or two more semesters. Other students made dramatic improvements of 2 or 3 grade levels in the same time period. I wrote them each an individualized assessment acknowledging their achievement at the end to supplement and explain the pass/fail grade the system required me to enter.

    The other teacher and I wrote a memo with our results to the college, hoping they would implement what we developed throughout the remedial classes, but instead they replaced it with an all-computer learning model. Not sure how students are doing with that, as I don’t usually teach those classes. But it is possible to meet each student where they are, set individual goals for that student, and achieve dramatic results. Standardized tests, which depend on standardized measures of success and failure, are unhelpful when students are not standardized.

  12. Donald Pay 2015-10-08

    I think standardized tests can be helpful, but they are overdone and they over-promise. What they can’t substitute for is a teacher doing good, periodic assessments (you know, tests and quizzes, papers, oral reports, homework). They can help track individual students through time (assuming the tests don’t change dramatically) by using an objective standard. I found them very helpful in figuring out through use of aggregated data from standardized tests that Rapid City Area Schools were not adequately challenging certain bright students, and that may have been causing them to slip academically going from middle school to high school.

  13. Travis Wicks 2015-10-08

    For the record, I took a history course from Dr. Marmorstein, and it was one of the most engaging classes I had at NSU. He even re-enacted a scene from the Princess Bride in one of his lectures. A great educator, that one.

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-10-08

    Travis, show me the teacher who says, “I want to work in this school district because of its exceptional commitment to Common Core!” and I’ll show you a teacher who’s working too hard to win the interview.

    (And oh my goodness, which scene? With voices for all characters?)

  15. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-10-08

    Margaret, it sounds like you came up with a good program. Do you have any idea of how much a broader implementation of your program would have cost compared to the computer system the college (Regents?) adopted?

  16. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-10-08

    Don, do we lose information like what you found useful in the tests at Rapid City when we switch to new standards and tests without alignment to our previous results?

    Evidently the state felt it was more important to convert to Common Core than preserve continuity in assessment. Why couldn’t we have done both?

    Of course, when your former Secretary of Education is making bank as a consultant for Common Core standards, we should expect a singular focus on Common Core standards.

  17. Travis Wicks 2015-10-08

    Cory wrote: “Travis, show me the teacher who says, ‘I want to work in this school district because of its exceptional commitment to Common Core!’ and I’ll show you a teacher who’s working too hard to win the interview.”

    Yeah, I think that strategy might only win an interview for the Department of Education! But seriously, I don’t think I’d apply to a district that has an “exceptional commitment to Common Core.” I think I’d rather do something more noble, like skimming 6 figures from writing and administering grants from educational cooperatives.

    Oh, and it was Mandy Patinkin’s, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father, prepare to die,” scene. He had me get up and do it with him in front of the class. And yes, I did the voice. What can I say? I like to ham it up for an audience. ;)

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