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Editorial: When 'teaching to the test' is a good thing

State tests in 2013 will be based on

State tests in 2013 will be based on the tougher Common Core academic standards recommended in 2010 by the nation's governors and adopted by 45 states, including New York. Credit: iStock

Standardized testing for students in grades 3-8 began yesterday across New York State. For some parents, teachers and students, fear arrived too.

The level of anxiety makes one thing clear: The state Education Department and school districts should have done a better job communicating what this positive change toward higher standards and better-prepared students is going to mean for education.

Some fear is understandable: The tests, based for the first time on the new Common Core standards, are harder than those given in the past, and scores are expected to drop. But many of the anxieties are unfounded.

The opposition to testing has largely come to be based in one simple complaint: that the only thing public schools do nowadays is "teach to the test." In fact, a strength of the Common Core is that the only way to teach to these tests is by teaching rigorous thinking and evidence-based reasoning all year long.

Teaching to the test has traditionally been a problem because there was a gap between what was valued in the classroom and what was valued on the tests. Used properly, Common Core overcomes that by matching the skills taught to those tested. The new standards, in both math and English language arts, put a premium on complex, high-order thought and in-depth comprehension. In that sense, proponents say, "These are tests worth teaching to."

Another complaint, that the children will spend more time taking standardized tests, isn't borne out either. Students are spending about the same time taking tests as they have for the past several years.

If officials had done a better job explaining and selling Common Core, a lot of this anxiety could have been avoided. Everybody wants kids to get a great education. Getting broad support for positive change should mostly involve showing people how and why the changes are positive, and just because that hasn't been done yet doesn't mean it can't happen in the future. These are improvements that should form the core of education in New York for years to come, and the state Education Department needs to increase the efforts to explain, and extoll, their value.