08/21/14 2:12pm
08/21/2014 2:12 PM
JENNIFER GUSTAVSON  FILE PHOTO

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO

The New York State Department of Education has released the results of Common Core-aligned math and English Language Arts exams taken this spring by students statewide, and outcomes from local districts fall in line with wider trends.

Those trends pointed to improved scores in math overall, with ELA results generally falling or staying flat.

Statewide, proficiency rates (the number of students scoring at levels 3 and 4) increased more in math than in English. In 2013, 31.2 percent of students achieved proficiency on the math exam; that number jumped to 35.8 percent in 2014. In English, the proficiency rate ticked up one-tenth of a percent, to 31.4 percent.

The tests were — and remain — a source of conflict for many parents and teachers throughout the state. Part of New York’s Common Core State Standards, state legislators delayed some of the impacts the tests have in evaluating teacher performance in reaction to opposition from the public. The standards came after New York opted into the federal program, which supplies the state with education funds otherwise not available.

This year’s results provided the first opportunity to compare students’ test performance in consecutive years. Educators with the state’s Board of Regents, which has been implementing Common Core, said that despite what some may consider low proficiency levels – numbers that opponents say defeat the students taking the tests — long-term, the plan is going as scheduled.

“This is still a transition period,” said New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Meryl Tisch. “It will take time before the changes taking place in our classrooms are fully reflected in the test scores.”

This year’s results are below:

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12/14/13 8:00am
12/14/2013 8:00 AM

Testing

The term Common Core has been used in these pages and elsewhere to describe the new policies and practices schools are being asked to adopt by the State Education Department. However, Common Core is just one portion of these reforms and, based on what I read in Michael White’s column and the overwhelming parent and teacher response at the education commissioner’s forums and on social media sites, folks are using Common Core as a catch-all term for the entire program. People are actually concerned about the new state assessments, the new teacher evaluation system (called Annual Professional Performance Review, or APPR) and potential profiteering by private corporate interests related to these reforms.

Common Core, on its own, is a relatively benign list of things that a student should know and be able to do by the end of a given school year in a given course. You can review the standards themselves at corestandards.org. These standards were authored by the National Governors’ Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the nonprofit Student Achievement Partners. Do these organizations have agendas? Of course they do. Every advocacy organization does. Are those agendas to steal money and autonomy from school districts? Hardly. Teachers will still be able to do good work in a Common Core classroom just like they were when the concept of standards was first introduced nationally in President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind reform initiative.

Claims that major publishing corporations like Pearson Inc. “wrote the standards” have no merit outside the fantasyland of sites like Breitbart.com  and its ilk. Any publisher worth its salt is aligning old materials and developing new materials to the Core, much as they did when the NCLB standards came out in the early 2000s, but they still must compete for district dollars to purchase those resources. New standards, same old publishing business. If you are interested in seeing a change in where schools spend their money, fighting Common Core is not where I’d spend your time or energy.

Ironically, the Common Core era, combined with the increased availability of inexpensive computer hardware like Chromebooks and tablets, has made it possible for teachers to implement inexpensive or free digital instructional resources, such as Khan Academy, Learnzillion and Brainpop. This movement has publishers like Pearson scrambling to hold on to their textbook and instructional materials revenues, as textbooks become dinosaurs and teachers are easily able to analyze results of a class quiz online and assign individualized activities to each student using a variety of free and open-source instructional programs.

Standards — Common Core or the old state standards — are goals, and teachers plan the path for getting students to the goals. If parents and teachers were only being asked to contemplate Common Core without the rest of the pieces that have come with it, we’d not have a rebellion on our hands. But, as they say, the horses are already out of the barn. Teachers are being given letter grades based on student test scores over which they may or may not have any control. Good teachers are getting disappointing grades and being told they must do better but, in some cases, doing better means magically removing a student’s learning disability, changing a student’s general motivation to take a multiple-choice test, or increasing the amount of exposure to literature and informational texts in a student’s home and family life. The APPR system has few defenders statewide, even in Albany. APPR can easily be removed or revised without disrupting the state department’s other initiatives, including Common Core.

The New York State Testing Program has been much maligned since it added the grades 3-8 assessments during the NCLB era. Pearson has the state testing contract, and there have been all sorts of problems and complications over the years, but Pearson has been making money by selling tests to districts and state departments since the invention of the test and will probably continue to do so throughout the next 100 years of rides on the educational reform roller coaster. In my work, I travel the country visiting with district leaders and educators and I can tell you pretty confidently that no state’s assessment contractor is respected or loved. Swap Pearson for CTB or Riverside Publishing and we’re probably having the same conversation here.

The movement against these reforms would be stronger if it divides and conquers. The State Education Department is not going to abandon its entire agenda, but it is conceivable to see them backing off from some of its components, particularly with such vocal and unanimous resistance across the state. Ask yourself: Would you be OK with a new set of learning goals for your children if the state department eased up on all the testing and if your child’s teacher didn’t feel as if she/he were under attack by the APPR system? Encourage your representatives in Albany to pick one component of the reform agenda and start there.

And give Common Core a second look. Without APPR and the new tests, it’s just a suggested list of things to teach in a given grade level and subject area, not the diabolical evil force it’s been depicted to be.

Doug Roberts is a consultant and entrepreneur in the educational technology sector who describes his work as standards- and publisher-agnostic. He lives in Greenport.

10/16/2013 12:29 PM
JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Shoreham-Wading River superintendent Steven Cohen and school board president Bill McGrath.

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Shoreham-Wading River superintendent Steven Cohen and school board president Bill McGrath.

The Shoreham-Wading River school board unanimously approved a pair of measures calling on state and federal officials to scale back their standardized testing requirements, joining a growing chorus of those in the education field saying the reins are too tight.

“I think the board wants the community, as well as the [State Education Department] and the governor, to know that it thinks the testing program, as part of the Race to the Top grant, is overkill and is counterproductive,” Superintendent Steven Cohen said.

The pushback comes after New York State officials implemented what is known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative, 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 have said. The initiative’s principal requirements are that instructors to teach more non-fiction and more rigorous math to students at a younger age.

But the reforms have met with much opposition, with many saying the tests are forcing teachers and administrators to “teach to the test” and don’t leave enough room for creativity in the classroom. Recently, both the Riverhead and Southold school boards passed resolutions similar to the one passed by the SWR school board on Oct. 8.

Mr. Cohen, an outspoken opponent of the Regents Reform Agenda, wrote an opinion column for the News-Review earlier this month detailing his frustrations with the measures and, in a phone call earlier this week, said the Shoreham-Wading River school board believes the SED “should back off from all this testing.”

“This part of the Reform Agenda basically undermines a lot of good curriculum and instruction,” he said.

The North Fork isn’t the only region in the state fighting the Common Core, prompting New York State Education Commissioner John King to schedule a series of public forums across the state to discuss the reforms with frustrated parents and educators.

But a forum scheduled for Oct. 15 in Garden City, the only one of its kind on Long Island, was postponed last weekend at the request of the commissioner’s office.

Mr. King said in a statement after the cancellation that “special interests” hijacked the first such forum. The first two forums were held in Poughkeepsie and Whitesboro, N.Y.

“Unfortunately, the forums sponsored by the New York State PTA have been co-opted by special interests whose stated goal is to ‘dominate’ the questions and manipulate the forum,” Mr. King stated.

It is not clear if the forums will be rescheduled.

ryoung@timesreview.com