This summer it wasn’t the students who were waiting to see a big red letter on their tests; it was New York State educators. In the past week, the results of tough new tests for grades 3–8 came in, and as expected, the results were bad. Statewide, only 31 percent of students passed both English and math, while in Saugerties that number was just 23 percent.
This is down from 2012, when 50 percent of Saugerties students were deemed proficient in the two subjects (compared to 55 percent statewide), though because the new tests are much different, comparisons aren’t very useful.
The scores are even more discouraging when broken down by grade level and subject area. Only 14.9 percent of seventh graders and 9.4 percent of eighth graders were judged proficient in math. In 2012, those percentages were 57.2 and 35.4, respectively.
The new tests are based on the common core, a curriculum that aims to boost writing and reasoning achievement. It’s already been adopted by most states, though New York is only the second to implement testing based on the standards. Kentucky, the first, saw a similar across-the-board drop of around 30 percent.
What does all of this mean for the future of standards-based education? Most agree that low scores are not the death knell for the new common core standards. First, low scores were expected since this is only the first year of this more rigorous testing. Second, lower test scores do not necessarily correlate with lack of preparation for university studies. In fact, in the same year that Kentucky’s students did poorly on their new state tests, a significantly larger portion of students did more favorably on the ACT college admissions test.
“Testing in and of itself isn’t bad,” said Saugerties Superintendent Seth Turner at the Aug. 13 School Board meeting. “You are not limited by anything as a graduate of the Saugerties school system,” he said. “We have students going on to Harvard and the Russian ballet.” But he also points out there is nothing wrong with students becoming mechanics. Diversity is key to any thriving community. He said the basis of the curriculum was “unsound” but all districts were required to implement it because the state required it.
It seems these standards, which focus more closely on critical analysis and bump up the reading level each student is expected to achieve, aren’t going anywhere. Those in the classroom, educators and students, will need to learn to adapt to these changes.
Teachers trying to adapt to the new standards face a dilemma. Though most agree that higher standards are laudable, there is a question of how to make all students achieve high standards of abstract critical thinking in a time in which budgets, and thus resources, continue to be cut. The new standards, which include “analyz[ing] how a particular sentence, paragraph, chapter, or section fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the ideas” take time and energy to develop, and in some cases cannot be measured by a single test. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says “the total cost of testing, including the direct [financial] costs of the tests and the cost of instructional time lost to testing and test preparation” is “unacceptably high.”
Still, it’s likely the scores will increase in future years, as teachers learn what works and what doesn’t when, to use a phrase usually muttered in derision, teaching to these tests.
Additional reporting by Catherine Luttinger