State officials call for patience on new Common Core standards

08/16/2013 10:00 AM |

Testing

As many parents struggle to understand how the majority of children — locally and across the state — could have performed so poorly on the 2012-13 school year’s math and English Language Arts assessments, local educators and administrators are trying to calm their concerns.

School administrators and school board members across Riverhead Town have been trying to downplay the state test results released last week, saying the numbers don’t truly reflect student proficiency levels or overall classroom performance.

For the first time, this year’s math and ELA assessments included elements of what’s known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The Common Core is a new set of national standards designed to raise the bar for classroom instruction and help “prepare students for college and careers in the 21st century,” state officials say. The initiative primarily requires instructors to teach more non-fiction and more rigorous math to students at a younger age.

The state Department of Education last Wednesday released the results of the math and ELA assessments students in grades 3 through 8 took in April. The results showed a significant drop in test scores compared to the previous school year.

Statistics statewide for New York schools in which students took the assessments showed 69 percent failed to meet proficiency levels in math and 68.9 percent in ELA. School districts in Suffolk County generally fared better than the state overall, with 66.8 percent failing math and 63.7 percent failing ELA.

Of Riverhead School District students, 74.7 percent failed to meet the state’s math proficiency standard and 73.8 percent failed to meet the ELA proficiency standard for the 2012-13 year, according to the state’s report.

Shoreham-Wading River and Riverhead Charter School students also saw a significant drop in scores compared to the 2011-12 school year.

Riverhead school board president Ann Cotten-DeGrasse attributed the lower test scores in part to the state’s implementing Common Core standards before Department of Education officials fully developed the program. For example, she said, the state didn’t provide math teachers with the materials they needed to prepare students for the assessments until “right before the test.”

“It didn’t come as a shock to us,” Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse said of the assessment results. “Obviously, we would have liked to have had better results. We do have our work cut out for us and hope everyone understands this was an experimental year.”

Riverhead Charter School principal Raymond Ankrum said although he was disappointed with his school’s scores overall — 74.1 percent of students failed ELA and 81 percent failed math — he was happy with his 5th- and 6th-grade ELA scores.

Of the 27 Riverhead Charter School 5th-graders who took the ELA exam, 33.3 percent were deemed proficient and 3.7 percent excelled on the test. As for the school’s 22 6th-graders who took the ELA exam, 27.3 percent were deemed proficient and 4.5 percent excelled.

“Those teachers did a really good job preparing students for the test,” he said. “The state has really raised the bar and we have a lot to work on. I want us to do better, and I feel confident we will do better next year.”

In a letter addressed to parents and published on local district websites, state Department of Education commissioner John King said the change in test scores “does not mean that students are learning less or that teachers and schools are performing worse than last year.

“Proficiency rates, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the standards, on the new Common Core assessments cannot be compared with last year’s proficiency results since the old scores are from an old test based on the former standards,” he said. “The results from these assessments will help you and your school directly address the learning needs of your child so that he or she gets and/or stays on track for college and career success.”

In a statement released to the press last Wednesday, Mr. King said, “I understand these scores are sobering for parents, teachers and principals. It’s frustrating to see our children struggle. But we can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed by frustration.”

While the state has claimed implementation of the Common Core program aims to better prepare students for college and careers, many parents and educators have criticized the move because they believe teachers are being forced to abandon true learning for what’s known as teaching to the test.

The results of the new assessments are also expected to be tied to the state-mandated annual professional performance review plans, known as APPR. This teacher evaluation requirement originated in 2010 after New York was awarded a grant of nearly $700 million under the federal Race to the Top program. For individual school districts to qualify for part of the grant, the state required each to implement its own APPR program this year.

In the Shoreham-Wading River School District, 57.1 percent of students failed to meet ELA proficiency standards, and 65.8 percent failed to meet the math standards. Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Steven Cohen said he fears the path the state is going down through the Common Core initiative will “degrade quality education” in New York.

Family income levels play a major role in student performance, he said, and he doesn’t agree that a 10-year-old student’s assessment scores can determine whether or not that child will be college- or career-ready in the future. And come 2017, high school students will be required to pass Common Core-aligned Regents exams, which he expects to increase dropout rates or the number of years it takes to graduate.

He said parents have been slow to realize the potential negative impacts of the Common Core initiative.

“The state, I believe, no longer has an interest in the public school system,” Mr. Cohen said. “If the parents don’t fight back, then we’ll all lose.”

Jeanette Deutermann, founder of the Long Island Opt-Out Facebook page and mother of two elementary school students, said she opposes “high-stakes testing and data mining for New York State children,” and she said she’s not alone.

“We can’t forget who these test scores really damage: the young children who sat through endless hours of testing,” she said. “Commissioner King fails to understand that when a young child sits through weeks of test-taking, prepares all year, and is told how important these tests are, only to fail, these failures can cause permanent damage to the child.”

Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University and an organizer of another recently formed group, the Badass Teachers Association, said testing “is driving the best teachers out, and making students hate going to school.”

“[We] refuse to accept assessments created and imposed by corporate-driven entities that have contempt for authentic teaching and learning,” Mr. Naison said in a statement to the press. “[We] feel that the real failures in this testing fiasco are not the children or teachers of New York … Those who administer and score these tests bear responsibility for the gratuitous humiliation of thousands of special needs students and English language learners throughout the state who should never have been forced to take these tests.”

Stephanie Galka, a mother of two elementary school students in the Riverhead district, said although she’s in favor of holding teachers and administrators more accountable for providing students with a quality education, she has not been impressed with the way the Common Core initiative has been unfolding.

“As a parent, I find it frustrating that we are not able to see the tests that our children take,” she said. “How can we learn from the mistakes we make if we can’t even see what areas we need to work harder in?”

She said she’s also concerned about the amount of time taken away from classroom instruction and used to prepare students to take additional tests.

“I am not sure what the solution is; the only thing I can say is from my experience as a parent I have yet to see the benefit of this testing,” she said. “I see dedicated, loving, caring and hardworking teachers not being able to do anything extra in the classroom as the time constraints are so strict.”

jennifer@timesreview.com