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Editorial: New York's foggy sea of school numbers

File photo of children in a classroom. (Aug.

File photo of children in a classroom. (Aug. 6, 2012) Credit: iStock

If you're a parent bombarded by educational data, you have to wonder which statistics matter. High school graduation rates? The percentage of graduates who are ready for work or college? Teacher performance? District performance? The state's national ranking?

As the academic year begins, parents rightly might wonder what kind of test all these data pose for them. Is the system getting better or worse? How is my child doing? How are the teachers rated? Is the school a good one? Is the district worth all the tax dollars spent?

There are numbers to answer all of these questions, but they are made even more confusing with the recent transition to Common Core standards.

Beginning last year, tests in math and English for third- through eighth-graders were scored at much higher standards than in the past to reflect whether students were truly on track for college or careers. Many weren't. The percentage of kids achieving proficient or highly proficient scores fell by half from 2012 to 2013.

Last year, the state began releasing statistics on teacher performance, another huge change. Now also available for parents for the second year are performance evaluations of their kids' individual teachers.

Test results for individual students will be sent out over the next month.

So which results should we pay attention to, and what can we learn?

Three weeks ago, for the second time, the state released district results of student tests derived from Common Core curricula. On Long Island, 43.4 percent of students tested proficient in math, a decent improvement over 2013, and 36.8 percent did so in English, a small decline. The district-by-district results varied dramatically, and we should take the trends seriously, duplicating the methods used by improving districts, and making changes in lagging ones. But just knowing that Long Island or your child's district is 38 percent proficient or 83 percent proficient isn't useful on its own.

The state statistics on teacher and principal evaluations released in August are at the core of the education war enraging teachers, who have responded by riling parents.

But on Long Island, 97 percent of teachers were rated "effective" or "highly effective" and only four-tenths of 1 percent were rated ineffective, the category that could lead to eventual dismissal. Of Long Island's 124 public school districts, 86 did not have a single teacher or principal rated ineffective, a fact that's heartening -- and a little hard to swallow.

These ratings, right now, mean almost nothing. The evaluations are compiled based on 20 percent state test results, 20 percent local measures (other tests or criterion) and 60 percent subjective criteria like classroom observation. Principals and administrators are using the 60 percent to assure that most teachers end up with strong ratings, which in turn, experts say, keeps peace in the schools.

Getting a system in place that purports to rank teachers on some objective standards is just a small start toward teacher accountability. However, looking at these evaluations is still meaningful. If they don't reflect reality or a teacher is actually in the tiny percentage with a bad evaluation, a parent can take action.

The most important data will be mailed out by districts over the next month: the test results for individual students. They can help parents see where each child excels or fails. The data about individual students have real value.

Otherwise, so many teachers and principals passed their evaluations that those results are largely meaningless. In addition, district-wide results for students are so changed from old methods that comparisons are not yet useful.

But each year, if we do this right, the data will become more meaningful. If we keep pushing, the system will improve.

For now, we can concentrate on individual students, for whom we get results that pinpoint strengths and weaknesses. They're the point of the whole push for improvement.