EdSource published my commentary earlier this month showing the rise in ELA and slide in math achievement. When we follow the same classes of students over time, we see big changes in the number of students scoring at proficient and above. We do ourselves a disservice by looking solely at who’s above or below a proficiency cut score. What’s the trend for all students at all levels of achievement?

Here’s the longitudinal trend for each elementary class, presented in stacked bar charts. The percentage of students scoring at Level 1 is in dark grey; the percentage at Level 2 is in light grey. The percentage at Levels 3 and 4 are in light and dark blue. In an ideal world, the size of the blue rises over time and the grey bars shrink. That’s the case for the Class of 2026 in English Language Arts for the Class of 2026. 36,400 more 5^{th} grade students are meeting or exceeding standards than they were as 3^{rd} graders.

But in math, we see the opposite trend. The number of students at Level 1 is increasing over time. 39,700 fewer 5^{th}graders are meeting standards than they were as 3^{rd} graders.

Friends of mine argue correctly that “growth matters most”. But what if students aren’t growing as they should? What do we do then? More thoughts on these questions to come. You can reach me via email here.

On Saturday August 10th, the Delaware State Newspublished my commentary that the state needs to look at achievement data in a new way. The current method obscures both success and academic struggles.

Rather than comparing this year’s 3^{rd}graders to last year’s 3^{rd}graders, follow the same groups of students over time. That is, the state, districts, schools, teachers and parents need to ask: how did this year’sfourth graders compare to how they performed as third graders last year? When we begin to look at the data by when a cohort of students will eventually graduate from high school, we generate data that can radically alter the conversations we have.

Unfortunately, the State News published the commentary without any of the graphs of cohorts. The visuals help make a more persuasive case. Four cohorts of students have at least two years of test score data. Each cohort of third graders improves their English Language Arts achievement by an average of five percent as they move into fourth and then fifth grade.

An even more powerful view of the Classes of 2024, 2025, and 2026 shows an upward trend as they progress from 3^{rd}to 4^{th}and 4^{th}to 5^{th}grade.

Two thousand more students are meeting and exceeding ELA standards (shown in light and dark gray). The number of students scoring at the lowest levels (shown in light blue and purple) is shrinking. These are steady successes that need to be celebrated and more importantly, understood so that others can build on them.

In math, each cohort of students is experiencing a steady decline. The students’ slide is concerning because future math success depends on having a solid foundation in arithmetic. Gaps in students’ understanding become much harder to fill over time.

The graph for the combined Classes of 2024, 205, and 2026, as they progress from 3^{rd}to 4^{th}and 4^{th}to 5^{th}grade raises even greater concern.

3,500 fewer students are meeting math standards as 5^{th}graders than they were as 3^{rd}graders. The number of students scoring at the lowest level (shown in purple) is on the rise, by approximately 800 students in each class.

For reasons that are too complex to show here, these trends are not a result of the Smarter Balanced tests being too easy or too hard. A 2016 external review by HumRROfound that Smarter Balanced assessments rate mostly as excellent in their match to the content and depth required for college and career readiness.

All of the Smarter Balanced states are experiencing these successes and problems, though Delaware’s struggles are greatest. It’s the only state in the consortium whose cohort reading scores start to decline in 6^{th}grade. A few states—California, Connecticut and South Dakota—experience a bounce up in 6^{th}grade math achievement.

Delaware should consider convening expert teachers in both content areas to more fully understand these trends. Begin to generate hypotheses about what might be contributing to the success in ELA and failure in math. Translate the data into information and knowledge that truly improves learning.