Editorial & Opinion

Senator Bell: RICAS Scores are so preposterously bad because the standards are very high

“So what happened? Did Rhode Island schools totally implode? How can we have numbers that are so unbelievably bad?” asks State Senator Samuel Bell. “The truth is simple. They just raised the standards. A lot.”
Photo for Senator Bell: RICAS Scores are so preposterously bad because the standards are very high

Published on November 10, 2021
By Senator Samuel Bell

Each year, when RICAS results are released, there’s an annual round of hand-wringing about the terrible numbers. This year was no different. Boston Globe columnist Dan McGowan declared that Rhode Island is facing a math crisis, citing the RICAS scores. Only 20.0% of students are meeting expectations in math! The numbers are just very, very low. In 2019, before the pandemic, 29.8% met expectations in math, and 38.4% met expectations in English. Politicians and pundits citing these numbers declare that Rhode Island students are failing catastrophically, that young people in our state can’t do basic math. So what happened? Did Rhode Island schools totally implode? How can we have numbers that are so unbelievably bad?

The truth is simple. They just raised the standards. A lot.

It’s not a secret. The RICAS is a “high standards” test. Its standards come from the Common Core, which was set up with the explicit goal of raising standards. The goal was that by adopting Common Core, “no state would lower its standards.” The goal was to match the “highest international standards.”

What did that mean in practice? The math standards were designed so that “students who master the K‐7 material will be able to take Algebra 1 in 8th grade.” By 8th grade, students were supposed to be ready to take what was traditionally a 9th grade class. They were expected to be a full grade level above traditional grade level. And let’s be honest, under the traditional curriculum, Algebra 1 wasn’t exactly an easy class for 9th graders. If anything, though, this understates how much these standards expect of 8th graders because they also mix in concepts from traditional 10th grade Geometry. In seventh grade, the Common Core expects students to know the properties of “supplementary, complementary, vertical, and adjacent angles” well enough to be able to “write and solve simple equations for an unknown angle in a figure” in a “multi-step problem.” By eight grade, the Common Core expects students to not only know the Pythagorean Theorem but actually be able to “explain a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem and its converse.” And the Common Core still expects 8th graders to learn key Algebra I concepts like solving systems of linear equations and understanding irrational roots of quadratics. Basically, by 8th grade, these standards are somewhere between one and two grades above traditional grade level.

That’s why most students can’t pass the test.

So how are we actually doing? For one thing, it is hard to measure. Standardized tests are flawed because education is, fundamentally, difficult to quantify. But we do have a reputable national assessment designed to measure all states on the same test, and it is worth looking to see how we do on it. Known as the NAEP, it’s not aligned with Common Core, and it shows Rhode Island scoring about average, with mild underperformance in 8th grade math. In 4th grade math, we score 239, compared to a national average of 240. For 8th grade math, we score 276, compared to a national average of 281. For 4th grade reading, we score 220, compared to a national average of 219. For 8th grade reading, our score of 262 exactly matches the national average. Because our median income is slightly above the national average, and test scores are highly correlated with income, you’d expect Rhode Island to be slightly above the national average, so these scores are consistent with real, but not apocalyptic, underachievement in our schools.

The real level of underachievement in our schools is still a travesty. Our schools are a mess, and we have to fix them. I want my (soon to be born) son to get a good education from the Providence Public Schools, and I know every parent feels the same way. That means it’s time to question the policies we’ve put in place. And one of those policies we should question, I believe, is the Common Core. Especially when it comes to math. When you dig further into the details, it becomes clear just how fast the Common Core expects students to learn math. If anything, the Common Core math curriculum actually runs behind traditional grade levels for first and second grade, so students have to learn even faster from 3rd to 8th grade. I went to public schools just before Common Core hit, and we started memorizing our times tables in 1st grade. By 3rd grade, we were doing long division. Common Core, on the other hand, doesn’t do times tables until 3rd grade, and it doesn’t do long division until 6th grade. Instead, Common Core focuses on teaching a number of fairly complex visualizations of very basic addition and subtraction. The idea is for students to learn more deeply what is going on inside addition and subtraction problems, to help teach them different strategies for solving these problems. The counterargument is that these methods make simple math way too confusing, leading to a number of much-mocked viral math problems. No matter where you fall on that debate, slowing down the early curriculum to add these additional strategies makes the rocket fuel pace from 3rd to 8th grade even more blistering.

I can see why this made sense in theory. Sometimes, you need to challenge people to get them to achieve. Too much of math is rote, and it is important to understand what is happening at a fundamental level. But now we have empirical data about whether this works. And, at least for most Rhode Island students, it doesn’t. The RICAS scores are clear. If a math curriculum can’t get students to meet its standards, then something is wrong with the curriculum – something that no amount of simply asserting that it is “high quality” will fix. I believe there’s a set of curriculum standards out there that could speed up math achievement and deepen learning, but the evidence is stacking up across the country that Common Core is not working.

There’s nothing wrong with setting high goals for achievement. We should strive to have 8th graders learn what used to be 10th grade math. But it will be hard work. We shouldn’t pretend it will be easy. And when it doesn’t happen overnight, we probably shouldn’t tell our students they are failing.

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