Fewer Arkansas students scored proficient or advanced in most areas of the state benchmark exams in 2013 than they did the year before, and in two areas, fifth grade math and seventh grade math, advanced scores were significantly lower. The shift from the traditional Arkansas frameworks to Common Core is probably a major factor.

Advanced is the highest rating on the exams, which are administered in grades 3-8. The other scores, basic and below basic, are considered unacceptable.

Thirty-two percent of seventh-graders scored advanced in math, compared to 40 percent the year before. In the fifth grade, 33 percent of students scored advanced in math in 2013, eight points lower than the previous year. The percentage of students scoring proficient was slightly higher in both grades.

The 70 percent scoring proficient or advanced in fifth grade and seventh grade math is the lowest in both grades since 2009.

The percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced also dropped in third grade math and literacy, fifth grade literacy, sixth grade literacy, seventh grade literacy, and eighth grade math and literacy.

Thomas Coy, Arkansas Department of Education public school program manager, said the shift to Common Core is a factor, though not necessarily the only one. The Common Core is a set of educational benchmarks that describe the skills students should have in English language arts and math. They have been adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia. Arkansas implemented the Common Core in grades 3-8 for the first time this past school year.

Among the challenges associated with moving to the Common Core has been the fact that the new standards do not fully align with the old, soon-to-be-replaced benchmark tests.

Students in grades 3-8 spent the year studying under the new Common Core State Standards while being tested under the old Arkansas frameworks. Seventh grade math saw a significant shift away from geometry toward more algebraic concepts such as ratio and proportion. That wasn’t reflected on the test, where five of the 10 most missed questions were geometry-related.

Most of the geometric concepts were pushed to lower grades, so they weren’t fresh. According to Coy, students were moving up while content was moving down, so some concepts may have been skipped in the process.

Meanwhile, the most missed items in fifth grade math also could be partially explained by the shift to the Common Core. The focus of measurement concepts now is on conversion of like units, such as distances in the metric system. The old frameworks focused on simple measurements, such as those done with a ruler.

Arkansas is part of a consortium of states known as PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, that will pilot-test Common Core-based student assessments this year. The tests are scheduled to be fully implemented next school year.

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