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As expected, state test scores drop significantly

Test scores for third through eighth graders were released Wednesday and they show a dramatic drop in the number of New York state students who are considered proficient in math and English.

Less than one-third of students in the third through eighth grade, around 31 percent, passed the new math and English exams given for the first time this year, says Regents Chancellor Merrill Tisch, who made the announcement on a conference call.

“As anticipated, the scores we are announcing today are significantly lower,” Tisch said.

Tisch says what’s even more “disheartening” is the gap between white students and other students. She says, overall, African American and Latino students did even worse, with only 16 to 17 percent deemed proficient in math and English.  

Among the state’s largest cities, the scores were also even lower than the statewide average. In New York City, just 26 percent of students were found to be adequately proficient in math, while only around five percent of third through eighth graders in the Rochester city schools scored high enough to pass the tests, says State Education Commissioner John King.   

"It’s incredibly distressing,” King said. “But unfortunately, it is also not surprising.”

Even in many wealthier suburban schools, less than half of the students passed the tests.

Education officials, starting before the final results were released, attempted to downplay their significance. They said the huge decrease in test scores is due to the early adoption of the new federal Common Core curriculum. They say teachers are still getting up to speed on the new standards, but they decided to go ahead with tests based on the new requirements anyway, in order to establish a baseline to determine what needs improvement in the future.

But critics call the education official’s answers “spin.” Billy Easton with the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group allied with the teachers union, says there’s been an “obsession” with teaching to the test at the expense of “actual learning.” And he says parents and their children are going to be understandably upset with the dismal test scores.

“It’s going to be a punch in the gut,” Easton said. “It’s a pretty shocking drop.”

New York State Senator Lee Zeldin, a Republican from Long Island, calls the implementation of the common core standards in New York “reckless” and “misguided.” He says there should be a moratorium on adopting the federal curriculum and he says taking away local control by school districts sets a “dangerous precedent.”  

“If we’re not going to implement this correctly, then we have to hit the pause button,” Zeldin said.

He agrees the low test scores send the wrong message. He says “intelligent” students who “pay attention in class, do their homework, take their notes” may still fail the test because they are not learning the correct material. He says he worries about his own two daughters, who are entering the second grade, and what effect the tests could have on them.

The Alliance for Quality Education's Easton says the gap between test scores for children at richer and poorer schools could be addressed by spending more money. He says the state continues to ignore a court order that, if followed, would require it to spend billions of more dollars a year on the neediest children. He says the current funding gap between the state’s poorest and richest students is $8600 per child a year. He says while schools saw a small increase in state funding this year compared to last year, many are still laying off teachers and cutting programs.  

Teachers are now required to undergo new evaluations based in part on their students test scores. But education officials says they will not be penalized this time around for the large number of pupils who failed the tests. But the New York State Board of Regents has ruled that by 2017, graduating students will be required to meet all of the new Common Core standards, or they won’t be allowed to graduate.

Commissioner King predicts that some students will have to remain in high school for five years, instead of the usual four, to meet the new graduation standards.

But he says that’s better than the current situation where many New York state high school students who attend college find they must first enroll in costly remediation classes.

“As a country, I think, we have been reluctant to acknowledge the hard truth of where we are in terms of college and career readiness,” King said.