Editorial: Disappointing school tests provide a reality check

If the changes that won unanimous Board of If the changes that won unanimous Board of Regents approval Monday, Oct. 20, 2014, win final approval from the Regents in January as scheduled, they would first take effect with teenagers who entered ninth grade in 2011 and are due to graduate in June 2015. Photo Credit: Daniel Brennan

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For many on Long Island, the fact that the United States lags behind so many other nations in education has long felt like a truth that doesn't apply to them. Sure, the country and even the state might not be doing great, but my schools and my kids are doing fine.

So it's here, more than just about anywhere else, where the dramatic shortcomings in this year's state test results for students in grades three through eight delivered a painful truth. Even in a region that, were it a state, would be ranked tops in the nation in education, about 60 percent of students lack proficiency in English and math.

This year the state Education Department adopted more rigorous national academic standards based on the Common Core curriculum. This past school year was the first time that curriculum was taught, and everyone knew the test results would show a huge drop. That's what had to happen to reflect reality.

Statewide, the percentage of children rated proficient or better in math plunged from 64.8 percent in 2012 to 31 percent in 2013. In English, those scores dropped from 55.1 percent to 31.1 percent. Although Long Island's 2012 baseline was better than the state's, the drops in acceptable scores in the new tests were just as large as in the rest of the state. About 40 percent of Long Island students in grades three through eight tested proficient or better in English in the new tests. About 37 percent did in math.

Kentucky was first to use these new tests. New York was next, and its results changed much as Kentucky's did. In both cases, in general, proficiency dropped by about 30 percentage points.

Results from prior years, based on too-easy tests and a curriculum that taught too little critical thinking, didn't tell us what we need to know about student preparedness. Those results said students were getting the skills they need, even though comparisons with students in other nations showed they weren't.

And those past test results were in stark contrast to data from SAT, PSAT, Regents exams and colleges, all of which show only about 35 percent of New York students who enter ninth grade are ready to take college-level courses four years later. Employers seeking skilled workers, say the same, even about Long Island graduates. All these data support this year's state test results, rather than contradict it.

In response to the new results, some elected officials argued that the Common Core is a federal imposition, and state and local educational standards work best. That's a great argument if we want to make our standards higher than the federal benchmark, but a terrible one to put forward after flubbing the national test.

Many educators claim that while they support the Common Core curriculum, using tough new exams after only one year of teaching it asked too much. But what tests should have been used? Old ones that wouldn't measure the new material? You have to start somewhere. And some parents argue that kids who receive low scores will face damaged self-esteem and increased pressure. That's not ideal, but it's better to confront them in middle school than for them to face the inability to pass college courses -- or face unemployment -- as adults.

There's no reason to get angry at the schools or the state or federal governments. The information garnered from these results is the information we need. The scores will get better and achievement will rise, as students and teachers get more comfortable with this new, rigorous curriculum. Let's move forward with our children and their teachers toward success rates that can make Long Island proud.

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