Uncommon Core Heightens Race and Class Math Divide

Karima Hawkins of Jackson, foreground, holds a sign against Common Core, the  State Standards Initiative that established a s
Karima Hawkins of Jackson, foreground, holds a sign against Common Core, the State Standards Initiative that established a single set of educational standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts and mathematics, at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014. Opponents of Common Core hope to convince legislators into ending the initiative. Lawmakers return to the Capitol for a three-month session this year. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The uproar over high-stakes testing associated with Common Core in New York State and complaints that children are being tested on things they were not taught, has obscured the deepening of racial, ethnic and class divisions in education in New York and the United States. Not only are the tests unfair, but according to a new study by the National Urban Research Group (NURG), math instruction and the educational system in the United States are deeply unfair, especially to Black and Latino students from poorer families.

The study conducted by the National Urban Research Group , The Common Core Promise: A Baseline Assessment of New York City's Implementation of Common Core Learning Standard, utilized data from 198,556 students in New York City Public Middle Schools who were administered the Common Core math assessment in Spring 2013. Based on their analysis of the data, NURG concluded, "If the 2013 Common Core math assessments are sensible proxies for grade-level expectations, then too many students in the New York City public school system are not prepared to meet the rigorous learning benchmarks. This is particularly the case for black students, Hispanic students, and students living in poverty."

The results on the Common Core Math tests are disturbing for all students, but especially disturbing when broken down by race, ethnicity, and social class. While the percentage of New York City middle school students scoring at proficiency level (Level 3 and 4) dropped for all grades and all groups, it was much steeper for students from minority and poorer families. For example, in the sixth grade, Hispanic students recorded the steepest declines. Their proficiency rate dropped from 50.4 percent in 2012 to 17.4 percent in 2013. Black students had the second largest decline amongst sixth graders. Their proficiency rate dropped from 45.8 percent in 2012 to 15.3 percent in 2013. White and Asian sixth graders declined, but not by as much, and their proficiencies rates were significantly higher at 49.6% and 62%. Larger percentages of White and Asian students scored at the highest proficiency level (4) while larger percentages of Black and Hispanic students scored at the "well below proficient" level (1). The report found that proficiency scores were similar for seventh and eighth grade.

The NURG study found other socio-economic factors, especially family income, were important in predicting student success on the math exams. For example, in Manhattan Community School District 2, located in the white upper-middle class neighborhoods below Central Park, including Wall Street, the Upper East Side, and Battery Park City, 52% of sixth graders, 45% of seventh graders, and 48.1% of eighth graders scored at Common Core proficiency. Less than a mile away, a majority of students in Central Harlem Community School District 5 are eligible for federal-assisted free meal programs or reduced priced meals. In Central Harlem, except for one school, sixth graders had a disastrous Common Core math proficient rate of 7.8%, seventh graders 2.8%, and eighth graders 6.9%. Again, the study found similar disparities in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.

According to the NURG study, "a total number of 51,618 students, more than one-fourth of New York City's middle school population, attend a school where 9 out of 10 students did not meet Common Core middle school math grade-level learning standards expectations. Nearly 90 percent of these lowest performing classrooms are located in three neighborhoods: the Bronx (40 percent), Central Brooklyn (23 percent), and Harlem (8 percent). A majority of families in these predominately African American and Latino neighborhoods of the Bronx (South Bronx), Brooklyn (including Central Brooklyn and Ocean Hill-Brownsville), and Manhattan (Central Harlem) struggle to meet their basic needs.

The NURG study found a striking "notable poverty dimension in percentages of Level 1 students." For example, in Bronx middle schools located in the poorest Congressional District in the United States where 72.3% of all children live in areas of concentrated poverty, 46.8% of sixth graders, 60.1% of seventh graders, and 51.9% of eighth graders scores at Level 1 which means they lack a basic understanding of grade-level Common Core math concepts.

One surprising finding that is despite the extravagant claims made for charter schools in a recent new massive publicity campaign, charter school students from poorer minority families did not score appreciably better than did similar students who attended traditional public schools n the same communities. In the Harlem Village Academy Charter School the passing rate for students on the math proficiency test dropped from 100% in 2012 to 21.3% in 2013, an astronomical decline of 78.7%. Two highly regarded KIPP academies also had declines in student performance of over 50%. Meanwhile the Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, the Mott Hall School in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, and the Queens Gateway to Health Science Secondary School in the Jamaica section of Queens outperformed neighboring charter schools.

The NURG study concluded that disparities in math performance would continue to grow as minority students from poorer families and communities graduated into high school without an understanding of basic mathematical concepts. It included teacher preparation as one of the factors contributing to unequal student performance, but it neglected to analyze curriculum differences in schools. Because of the pressure to boost student test scores, schools serving poorer and minority students have been transformed into giant test-prep factories, enriching publishers, but not significantly improving student understanding of math. As in the past, as students and teachers become more familiar with the tests, students in these schools will eventually score better - until tests are changed again.

The New York Times headline, "When 81% Passing Suddenly Becomes 18%," comes from then last time tests were changed in 2010, not because of the new Common Core assessments in 2013. That year the citywide proficiency rate in English fell from 69% to 42% and math proficiency rate fell from 82% to 54%.

While this study by the National Urban Research Group highlighted educational inequality in New York State, recent newspaper headlines show the national magnitude of the problem within and between states. For example, Kansas' State Supreme Court recently ruled that funding disparities between Kansas school districts violated the state Constitution. The court ordered the State Legislature to end the spending gap. Meanwhile a report released by the Center for American Progress found systematic underfunding of "higher-poverty districts" in six focus states including Illinois, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and North Carolina. The study concluded, "children attending school in higher-poverty districts still have substantially less access to state and local revenue than children attending school in lower-poverty districts."

The disparities between states are even greater. In 2010-2011 New York State, Alaska, New Jersey, Vermont, Wyoming, and Connecticut all spend more than $15,000 per pupil, however 25 states spent less than $10,000 per student. The five lowest spenders were Mississippi, Arizona, Oklahoma, Idaho, and Utah.

One problem may be that U.S. politicians really do not want children from poorer minority families to learn to do math. If they could understand these numbers they would be outraged and blatant, systemic educational inequality might not be allowed to continue.