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NY weighs plan for national school test standards

Amid rising resistance to "dumbed-down" state testing, Albany officials are seeking permission to join with other states in producing what they hope will be higher-quality assessments linked to national standards in English, math and other subjects.

While this initial move toward national testing carries risks, state education officials say it is more than outweighed by potential benefits. Among the perceived advantages is a chance to enlist "the best brains in the country" in designing new exams at lower cost than New York could obtain on its own.

"It seems to me that, as a nation, we have an interest in assessments that are world class," said David Steiner, the state's education commissioner, who has stressed the need for revamped testing since taking office Oct. 1.

Steiner is recommending that New York join a consortium of states in competing for $350 million in federal funds earmarked for developing new tests. The plan is to be reviewed Monday by the state's Board of Regents, which generally backs the new commissioner's recommendations.

New York's latest move is part of a countrywide effort, supported by President Barack Obama and the National Governors Association, to develop common academic standards and testing. Once developed, those standards and tests would have to be adopted by states individually.

Mass use of state-level standardized tests has produced widespread complaints of low quality in recent years. In 2006, many Long Island parents complained that reading passages appearing in new state tests for grades 3-8 had been lifted verbatim from juvenile magazines already read by their children.

Local school administrators who have studied the movement toward common nationwide tests acknowledge that efforts to forge agreement among dozens of states could result in continued mediocrity. Still, like their colleagues in Albany, local officials believe that potential gains outweigh risks.

Jack Bierwirth, superintendent of Herricks schools, has reviewed exam questions used by other countries, and concluded that those tests often measure children's reasoning skills better than American tests.

Bierwirth supports current efforts in this country to develop common tests, in part because the idea is to come up with standards pegged to international levels.

"As many people have said, what you test has a tremendous effect on what you teach," Bierwirth observed. "So if we can come up with some really sophisticated standards, and tests that measure those, I think we can have a tremendous impact on how we teach in the United States."

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