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State's English standards get 'good' rating in national review 

Fourth- and fifth-graders at the Davison Avenue School

Fourth- and fifth-graders at the Davison Avenue School in Malverne take the state English Language Arts test on April 12. Credit: Jeff Bachner

New York State's academic standards for English Language Arts continue to set relatively high goals for students after revisions last year that included jettisoning the Common Core label, a new national review concludes.

The reviewers faulted New York, however, for failing to pair its standards with specific lists of high-quality literary works, such as Shakespearean dramas. Such lists could help teachers select appropriate readings for students, the report said. 

The state's English benchmarks, which cover instruction from preschool through 12th grade, got a quality rating of "good" from a review team assembled by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. The group's 156-page report was released early Wednesday.

New York was among seven states, including Indiana and Pennsylvania, that received "good" ratings. Indiana scored highest in that group. Seven other states, including Texas, Missouri and Virginia, got lower marks of "weak" or "inadequate."

All of the 14 states selected for a thorough review of English standards had made substantial changes in their Common Core academic guidelines over the past six years. The reviewers were curriculum experts, selected from university faculties across the country.

"They didn't get the highest rating. There were certainly states that had higher standards, but they weren't the worst," said Amber Northern, the institute's senior vice president for research, in reference to New York's standing. "It wasn't a train wreck what they did here, but they took out some pretty important things."

Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the state Education Department, said the agency was reviewing the report and declined to comment on specific findings.

National Common Core academic standards were adopted by New York and 44 other states shortly after their approval by the National Governors Association in 2010. 

One feature of the guidelines was an accompanying list of "exemplars" — dozens of fiction and nonfiction works, poems, historical documents and other readings that academic experts considered challenging for students on specific grade levels. Selections ranged from Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" beginner children's book in kindergarten to Ernest Hemingway's novel "A Farewell to Arms" in 11th grade. 

The Fordham Institute analysts sought to determine what had happened to those benchmarks and exemplars over the past five or six years, in the aftermath of widespread revolts by teachers, parents and students against standardized tests that were tied to the Common Core standards. The upheaval hit hardest on Long Island, where tens of thousands of students boycotted state exams in English and math each year. 

Many parents protested that vocabulary used in the standards and tests was too difficult, and that tying test results to teachers' job evaluations put too much pressure on students and teachers alike.

In response, New York's Board of Regents last September approved amended sets of standards in both ELA and math, renamed Next Generation Learning Standards. The Regents said at the time that the guidelines remained rigorous. Earlier, the board had placed a four-year moratorium on linking teacher ratings to student test scores.

The institute's analysts, in Wednesday's report, agreed that the state's English benchmarks were clear and well-written overall, and that they lay out a framework of learning requirements "that will support many students' college and career aspirations." The analysts decided that state math standards had not been changed enough to warrant review. 

At the same time, reviewers deplored the lack of any specific guidance on appropriate English reading material — guidance that had been provided in the Common Core exemplar lists, now discarded. 

The report, titled "The State of State Standards Post-Common Core," concludes that some language in New York's standards "could be interpreted to mean that students do not need to read grade-level texts."

Funding for the project included a grant from the foundation of software billionaire Bill Gates, a major supporter of Common Core. 

Long Island educators voiced mixed feelings about the usefulness of recommended reading lists.

Vincent Cereola, the English department chairman at Ward Melville High School in Setauket, said exemplars could be appropriate under some circumstances, but that teachers need to be given discretion in choosing reading material for individual students. 

"We want to have foundational texts that struggling readers will find engaging, that will give them some success, so they hopefully have the confidence to move to higher levels of literacy," Cereola said. 

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