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Kids learning the right lessons in NY

Many desks were empty in this classroom at

Many desks were empty in this classroom at Valley Stream Memorial Junior High School as students opted out of taking the state's English Language Arts test Thursday, April 16, 2015. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

As we went through the college application process for the first time last year, someone in the audience would inevitably ask, are colleges impressed by a New York Regents diploma?

The high school or college counselor at the front of the room would utter something diplomatic. But the answer was, basically, that New York didn't stand out above any other place. Invariably, someone else would quietly say, "There was a time when a New York Regents diploma was the best of the best."

I could only smile and nod; my personal history in New York dates to only 2003. But this week, I saw something that means we're heading back to those fabled days of excellence.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress -- the gold standard for measuring student learning -- found that just one state has proficiency thresholds that meet the organization's bar across the board. You guessed it: New York.

Proficiency levels in New York for all four tests -- fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading -- met NAEP standards. Some other states came close; Texas and Wisconsin scored two out of four, and Massachusetts, just one.

This is the flip side of the painful education revolution New York underwent in 2013, when the Board of Regents raised "cut scores" -- test point values that are used to sort student performance into categories 1, 2, 3 or 4. Between 2012 and 2014, the percent of Long Island kids in grades three through eight passing state math tests dropped from 75.4 percent to 43.4 percent. The passing rate on the English exam fell from 67.1 percent to 36.8 percent.

Parents were understandably horrified. But rather than picking themselves up and urging their kids to study and practice, many Long Island parents went on a binge of paranoia. The state Education Department was out to trap teachers with harder tests! Albany was manipulating cut scores! That foreign company, Pearson Education, was siphoning off taxpayer dollars to the United Kingdom!

In April, roughly 200,000 students statewide in grades three through eight boycotted the state tests. This is shameful. When the going gets tough, wrap yourself in an anti-government conspiracy theory -- fueled by the teachers unions -- and opt out. Just quit.

What the NAEP results tell us is not that the new tests are too hard, but that the earlier tests were too easy. New York, like most states, had dumbed down its exams so that Washington wouldn't call our schools "failing" under the rules of No Child Left Behind. It took vision for former state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. to recommend raising the cut scores, and for Chancellor Merryl Tisch and the Regents to adopt the higher standards.

After April's opt-out brouhaha, the New York State United Teachers union called for Tisch to resign. She hasn't. It would be tragic to allow the mob to rule at this important juncture in public education.

I know how it feels when your kids fail. Especially when they are little, and you have no idea about their academic capabilities; it appears as though they're being labeled forever. One Long Island principal told me that beginning in third grade, when the academic rubber hits the road, parents start their sprint toward "special education" accommodations.

But consider this. As bad as we feel about our kids' failures, parents are the adults in the room. We need to act like it. How does your child feel when you give up on him? When you allow her to take the easy way out? You might as well take the word "loser" and plant it deep in his gut. I prefer the words, "Try harder. You can do it."

These are precious years -- mere moments, really -- when a parent can teach lessons about resilience, picking oneself up and persisting. Without that, a Regents diploma is truly a useless piece of paper.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.