Editorial: New exams are a test for public education

Members of the New York State Education Department explain how the Common Core Curriculum has affected testing and teaching in the state. Next week, students in grades 3-8 will take standardized tests revised to reflect the new curriculum. Videojournalist: Sam Guzik (April 12, 2013)

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Tough tests, painful as they can be, are a key component of education.

This week students across New York State in grades 3-8 will begin taking standardized tests far tougher than the ones given in the past, and parents, students and teachers are on edge.

That's understandable, but it's not productive. If children can't meet high standards, the time to find out is now, not later, when they can't function in college or meet job expectations. Now is also the time to find out if teachers aren't imparting to children the critical thinking skills they will need.

The fears spring from the warning that the percentage of children who receive a 3 (meeting proficiency) or 4 (exceeding proficiency) on a scale of 1 to 4 could be as low as 30 percent. But these are the inevitable struggles that come with even positive change. In the long run, the difficulties will be worth it. And these tests, and their results, need to be approached with strength and determination, not fear and evasion. In too many cases, fear is winning out.

Education is in crisis in New York. Even on Long Island, only 50 percent of students graduate high school in four years and are ready for college work. Community colleges have to put as many as 60 percent of freshmen in remedial courses, meaning the students pay college tuition to retake high school classes.

Drastic change is needed, and coming.

This is the first year public school students will be tested on the Common Core standards recently adopted in 46 states. They demand a more rigorous and in-depth understanding of math and language arts than has been typical in the past. Rather than writing essays about personal experiences, kids must read, absorb and write about texts provided to them. In math, students will have to solve problems using multiple steps that highlight deep comprehension. Because these tasks may be new to them, many will come up short. And many teachers are as afraid as their students that they, too, won't measure up.

This is the first year teacher evaluations will incorporate the standardized test results of their students, held up against similar students across the state. And many are teaching a new curriculum with new methods. For teachers, it's a perfect storm. Their anxiety fills the classroom as well.

New York State United Teachers, the largest teachers union in the state, took out ads (including in Newsday) calling on parents to "unite in a strong pushback against the state's over-reliance on standardized testing." Rallies against this year's tests have been held on Long Island and statewide. And some parents say their kids won't take the tests, a move that won't help anyone and could hurt funding for their schools.

 

The fears of teachers, students and parents are understandable. Students accustomed to excelling, or at least doing well enough on standardized tests, will be shocked if told they're actually a few rungs down, as will moms and dads. The offer of remedial help that comes with such a score may be viewed, at best, as a mixed blessing. And teachers whose classes suddenly score far worse than in the past will face the same insecurity.

But boycotting the tests is a bad strategy. And helping kids cheat on tests, as has been alleged happened last year in Long Island's Glen Cove district, is an atrocious one.

The new standards can, in time, improve the education and reasoning skills kids receive. Substandard scores will communicate information that is necessary to have. If children are not where they need to be, they and their parents need to know. We must find out early in the kids' school careers, not when they're failing in college or struggling in the workforce. We need to take on the challenge, as well as the test.

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