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NY makes progress since Common Core, but opt-outs a big challenge

Students at Southside Middle School preparing to start

Students at Southside Middle School preparing to start their Common Core mathematics testing in Rockville Center. Credit: NEWSDAY / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The Common Core standards adopted by New York in 2010 are gone, replaced last week by the Next Generation Learning Standards. Gone too, is the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into federal law in 2002. Congress replaced it with the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the state Education Department has a new draft plan to comply with the new law.

And judging by a polite and sparsely attended public forum Thursday night at a Dix Hills high school, some of the fury surrounding education policy in New York may be gone, too.

Yet many students aren’t taking state tests, parents aren’t yet reassured real improvement is here, and teachers have a wait-and-see attitude about performance evaluation rules due in 2019.

The biggest change in the shift away from Common Core and to Next Generation Learning Standards is the new name. That’s because the lists of skills that students were supposed to master to be college- and career-ready by graduation were only a tiny part of what went wrong. Educators who scrutinized those benchmarks generally approved of them. State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia says there are some changes that make the Next Generation Learning Standards more age-appropriate, but many of the small tweaks were about wording or clarity.

But the eruption against Common Core was largely sparked by the hurried implementation in 2012-13 that left teachers, parents and students unsure about what was to be learned and how it was to be taught. There was a lack of good management and messaging by the state. The more recent effort makes sure the standards are clear and easy to understand and that teachers are equipped to help students meet them.

That’s why the shift from No Child Left Behind to the Every Student Succeeds Act is more significant, and that’s why Elia is embarking on a series of 13 town hall-style meetings — starting with the Dix Hills event. No Child Left Behind was a strict, punitive policy mandating that every school district, school and individual student achieve grade-level competency or be considered “failing.” Often described as “ambitious,” which would have been fine, it was actually impossible, and set a level of federal control that states rebelled against.

The Every Student Succeeds Act plan is long and dense. Highlights include:

  • Setting the goal of improving high school graduation rates to 95 percent over time, from the current 82 percent.
  • Shrinking the achievement gaps experienced by minority and low-income students, and increasing delivery of high-quality tools like AP courses and International Baccalaureate programs to those students.
  • More emphasis on student improvement (growth), not just whether they reach a standard (proficiency).
  • District and school computer “dashboards” that show per-pupil spending and results on a wide variety of learning metrics and for a wide variety of subgroups like minorities or English-language learners, but that do not use letter grades for school or district ratings.
  • More emphasis on science and social studies achievement, and on rating college, career and civic readiness of graduates, to distinguish between those who earn more rigorous degrees or complete career training.
  • Stressing interventions and increased resources, not punishment, to help struggling schools turn around.

Elia is doing many of the right things, and doing them with the right tone. But she still has to face her biggest challenges, as a comment from Long Island Opt Out Network founder Jeanette Deutermann at Thursday night’s forum illustrated. Deutermann said she was afraid the Every Student Succeeds Act will label schools as failing if many students in third through eighth grades refuse to take mandated math and English tests.

They should be labeled that way.

But right now, it’s not even certain that information on test participation and results will be easy to access. The plan won’t label any schools “failing,” but it calls for reporting test results in two ways: one result based only on scores of students who took the annual spring math and English tests, and another that reflects opt-outs and a failure to meet the 95 percent test-participation rate demanded by federal law. The state plan also requires that schools with high opt-out numbers create action plans to address the problem. But the state Education Department says it has not decided whether both of these results will be on the school dashboard. They both must be.

On Long Island, more than 50 percent of students opted out of this spring’s tests. The opt-out movement was originally spurred mostly by fears of how tests were to be used to evaluate teachers, but anger about test length and quality, the new standards and the failed implementation also contributed. Now, every controversy except the issue of how teachers will be evaluated has been addressed, with that one crucial question put off until 2019.

There is a lot of effort, and a lot of money, going into improving education. But the students need to take the tests so we know what’s working and what isn’t.