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 3rdgraders to last year’s 3rdgraders, 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 3rdto 4thand 4thto 5thgrade.  

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 3rdto 4thand 4thto 5thgrade raises even greater concern.  

3,500 fewer students are meeting math standards as 5thgraders than they were as 3rdgraders.  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 6thgrade.  A few states—California, Connecticut and South Dakota—experience a bounce up in 6thgrade 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.