RICAS scores are so ridiculously bad because the standards are so high – Uprise RI
Every year when the RICAS results are released, there is a series of annual reviews of the terrible numbers. This year was no different. Boston Globe columnist Dan McGowan said Rhode Island is facing a mathematical crisis, citing RICAS scores. Only 20.0% of students meet expectations in mathematics! 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 experts citing these numbers say that students in Rhode Island are failing catastrophically, that young people in our state cannot do basic math. So what happened? Have Rhode Island schools totally imploded? How can we have such incredibly bad numbers?
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 core curriculum, which was set up for the express purpose of raising standards. The objective was that by adopting the common core, “no state would lower its standards”. The aim was to meet “the highest international standards”.
What did this mean in practice? The Mathematical Standards were designed so that “students who have mastered the subject K-7 can follow Algebra 1 in Grade 8”. By grade 8, students were supposed to be ready to take what was traditionally a grade 9 course. They were expected to have a full grade level above the traditional grade level. And let’s be honest, under the traditional curriculum, Algebra 1 wasn’t exactly an easy course for 9th graders. If anything, however, it underestimates how much these standards expect from Grade 8 students, as they also blend concepts from traditional Grade 10 geometry. In grade seven, the core expects students to know enough about the properties of “supplementary, complementary, vertical, and adjacent angles” to be able to “write and solve simple equations for an unknown angle in a figure” in a “multi-step problem.” By eighth grade, the core expects students to not only be familiar with the Pythagorean Theorem, but to be in fact able to “explain a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem and its converse.” And the core still expects grade 8 students to learn key concepts in Algebra I, such as solving systems of linear equations and understanding the irrational roots of quadratics. Basically, in grade 8 these standards are between one and two years above the traditional grade level.
This is why most students cannot take the test.
So how are we actually doing? On the one hand, it is difficult to measure. Standardized tests are flawed because education is fundamentally difficult to quantify. But we have a reputable national assessment designed to measure all states on the same test, and it’s worth watching how we fare. Known as NAEP, it is not aligned with Common Core, and it shows an average Rhode Island score, with a slight underperformance in 8th grade math. In 4th grade math we get 239, compared to a national average of 240. For 8th grade math we get 276, compared to a national average of 281. For 4th grade reading, we get 220, compared to a national average of 219 For grade 8 reading, our score of 262 is exactly the national average. Since our median income is slightly above the national average, and test scores strongly correlate with income, you would expect Rhode Island to be slightly above the national average. .
The actual level of underachievement in our schools is still a travesty. Our schools are a mess and we need to fix them. I want my son (soon to be born) to receive a good education in public schools in Providence, and I know all parents feel the same. This means that it is time to question the policies that we have put in place. And one of those policies that we should question, I believe, is the core curriculum. Especially when it comes to math. When you dig into the details, it becomes clear how quickly the core expects students to learn math. In fact, the core math curriculum lags behind traditional grade levels for Grades 1 and 2, so students need to learn even faster in Grades 3 through 8. I went to public schools right before Common Core launched, and we started memorizing our multiplication tables in grade 1. In year 3, we were doing a long division. Common Core, on the other hand, doesn’t do multiplication tables until grade 3, and it doesn’t do long division until grade 6. Instead, Common Core focuses on teaching a number of pretty complex visualizations of very basic addition and subtraction. The idea is that students learn more in depth about what goes on inside addition and subtraction problems, in order to teach them different strategies to solve these problems. The counter-argument is that these methods make simple math too confusing, which leads to a number of viral math problems that are laughed at a lot. No matter where you fall into this debate, slowing down the initial schedule to add those extra strategies makes the rocket fuel pace of Grades 3 through 8 even more searing.
I can see why this made sense in theory. Sometimes you have to challenge people to get them to be successful. Too much math is rote, and it’s important to understand what’s going on at a fundamental level. But now we have empirical data as to whether it works. And, at least for most Rhode Island students, that’s not the case. The RICAS scores are clear. If a math program cannot get students to meet its standards, then something is wrong with the program – something that no simple claim that it is “high quality” will fix. I believe there is a set of curriculum standards that could accelerate math scores and deepen learning, but evidence is mounting across the country that core curriculum doesn’t work.
There is nothing wrong with setting high goals for achievement. We should Make an effort to get Grade 8 students to learn what used to be Grade 10 math. But it will be hard work. We shouldn’t pretend it will be easy. And when that doesn’t happen overnight, we probably shouldn’t tell our students they’re failing.