Punishing Kids for Adult Failures

The massive score drop on tough new New York tests gives us an opportunity--and obligation--to change course

Test scores across New York State have collapsed, new results released Wednesday showed. Last year, 55% of students in the state passed the reading test; 65% passed the math test. This year, only 31% passed both subjects. In New York City, the proportion passing the state tests fell from 47% in reading and 60% in math to only 26% in reading and 30% in math.

Did the students suddenly get stupid? Did their teachers become incompetent overnight? Did schools fail en masse?

None of the above. The state Board of Regents, having decided that the old tests were too easy, changed the tests and raised the passing mark. Three years ago, in 2010, they did something similar -- raising the passing mark on the grounds that the tests were too easy, the bar too low.

This time, the regents have implicitly aligned the tests with a set of ostensibly national standards known as Common Core, which have been heavily promoted by the Obama administration as a measure of college- and career-readiness.

But Common Core has never been subject to trial or field-testing anywhere. No one knows whether it predicts or measures readiness for college or careers. No one can explain why all 8-year-old students in America should be tested to see if they are on a path for college. As for careers, most of them probably want to be cowboys or police officers or astronauts.

The one certain result of the Common Core standards is that they cause test scores to plummet. Kentucky saw its passing rates fall by 30 percentage points using the Common Core. New York students have experienced the same blow.

So now, overnight, thanks to Common Core testing, the majority of students across the state and in the city are failures. That means that the schools are now required (by the state's rules) to provide "academic intervention services" for them, which will take money away from the arts, physical education, foreign languages, history, civics and other essential subjects.

Who should parents and the public hold accountable for the collapse of test scores? Not the students and not the teachers, but state education officials. They make the rules that determine curriculum, standards, teacher qualifications and other factors that affect how schools function. They have changed the tests and the scoring repeatedly. They hold the reins of power.

If this year's abysmal test scores were a genuine reflection of student achievement -- and they are not -- the regents would be the responsible party.

Supporters of the Common Core standards, like U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, defend the sharp drop in scores, seeing it as a healthy development that should be applauded. We're finally seeing the truth about our kids' achievement, he says. But if the nation judged Duncan as he thinks teachers should be judged -- by the rise or fall of student test scores -- then he would be fired for presiding over a disaster.

The scores should not be taken seriously. There is no science involved in setting the passing mark on a test. It is a judgment call. It is subjective.

State Education Commissioner John King and Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch could set the passing mark wherever they chose. They chose to raise the bar so high that most students would fail. This is like raising the hoop higher in a basketball game, or pushing the wall farther back on the baseball field to make it harder to hit a home run.

A few months ago, Tisch said that it was time for students to "jump into the deep end of the pool." City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said it was time "to rip off the Band-Aid."

Why the eagerness to inflict harsh punishment on students? What about the kids who can't swim -- should they jump into the deep end, too? Why "rip the Band-Aid off" the children who can't read English, the children who are struggling to read and the children with disabilities? They need support, encouragement and true education -- not shock treatment.

It's not just the logic of the "reformers" that's a problem here. The tests themselves were riddled with problems. Last spring, the Daily News obtained a copy of a fifth-grade state reading test. I reviewed it and compared it with the national tests administered by the federal government.

The New York test contained long reading passages and questions written on an eighth-grade level. Why expect fifth-grade students to answer questions that are above their ability? Teachers told me that many students didn't have enough time to finish the test.

The leaders of the state seem intent on discouraging students, teachers and principals. Why do they want public schools to look bad? That is a question for them to answer.

The madness must end. Next spring, parents should keep their children home on testing day. Or send them to school with a note saying that they are opting out of the state testing. They should exercise their rights as citizens and send a message to the state: "Not with my child."

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