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 Southold Town have addressed worries about 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. And come 2017, high school students will be required to pass Common Core-aligned Regents exams, which educators expect will result in increased dropout rates or the number of years it takes to graduate.
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.
In the Greenport School District, 74.3 percent of students failed to meet the state’s math proficiency standard and 70.5 percent failed to meet the ELA standard for the 2012-13 year, according to the state’s report.
Southold, Oysterponds and Mattituck school district students also saw a significant drop in scores compared to the 2011-12 school year.
Greenport school board president Heather Wolf said the lower test scores were expected because this was the first year that the state implemented the Common Core standards. She said she doesn’t believe comparing the scores to the previous school year gives an accurate picture of student performance because the comparison isn’t “apples to apples.”
“One school year is all we had to prepare,” she said. “It’s a change. We just got a new scale and it’s a different measuring system.”
Ms. Wolf added she believes a better way to measure the impact of the Common Core standards is to compare this year’s test scores with future results over the next two years.
In the Oysterponds Elementary School District, which operates a pre-K through sixth-grade program, 50 percent of students failed math and 65.9 percent failed ELA. Oysterponds Superintendent Richard Malone said in a letter addressed to parents that the district is proud of the quality education it provides students and doesn’t believe the state assessment results accurately reflect students’ ability to learn or teachers’ instructional skills.
“We all know the scores will go up next year,” Mr. Malone said.
Mattituck was the only school district on the North Fork to outperform both state and county scores, with 59.5 percent of students failing math and 56.8 percent ELA. The New Suffolk Elementary School District’s assessments weren’t reflected in the state’s report, as going public with results from a school so small could lead to privacy issues.
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 Southold School District, 65.2 percent failed to meet the state’s math proficiency standard and 64.4 percent failed to meet the ELA standard. Southold School District Superintendent David Gamberg said although he agrees educators should strive to provide quality education in the classroom, he doesn’t believe the current state assessment model will achieve that result.
Among other exceptions he takes with the Common Core initiative, Mr. Gamberg said he can’t see how a 3rd-grader’s assessment scores can determine whether or not that child will be college- or career-ready in the future.
Instead of teachers dedicating hours of test preparation in the classroom, Mr. Gamberg said they should focus on engaging students to help them develop learning skills, instill a love of reading and writing, and provide an atmosphere that encourages curiosity.
Mr. Gamberg added that he has spoken against the state’s assessment model because he has found it to be illogical.
“There are no examples of highly effective systems of education throughout the world that attach a number to the efficacy of how teachers work,” he said.
Jeanette Deutermann, founder of the Long Island Opt-Out Facebook page and mother of two elementary school students, agrees too much time has been wasted on test prep and said she opposes “high-stakes testing and data mining for New York State children.”
“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.”
Mary VonEiff, a Southold parent who has worked as a special education teacher and administrator in school districts across the East End, said she’s against the Common Core initiative because she believes it strips local control of education away from parents, teachers, administrators and school boards. That puts education into the hands of private interest groups, such as Pearson, a worldwide publishing and educational company that sells the Common Core instructional materials to school districts, she said.
“The latest results in ridiculous testing offer parents a glimpse into the challenges teachers and students now face in public education,” Ms. VonEiff said. “The testing is part and parcel of the means to an end. These tests do not strengthen programming for students. They are data minefields to change curriculum and drive agendas.”