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New Common Core test results show two-thirds of NY students still aren't passing the exams

Eileen Buckley
WBFO News file photo

New York State Education officials say there’s some improvement in the Common Core aligned math and English tests taken by third through eighth graders this year, but admit that two-thirds of the students who took the test are still, essentially, failing the exams.

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who just began her job in July, put the best face on data that shows student test scores in third through eighth grade math and English tests have made just incremental progress in year three of the state’s implementation of the Common Core learning standards.

“I’m pleased to say that our numbers are moving in the right direction,” Elia said.

The commissioner says a seven percent increase in students passing the math tests to 38 percent passage rate is a “modest gain.”

But Elia, under questioning by reports, admits she is not thrilled that the percentage of students passing the English exams remains stuck at around 31 percent, and that around two-thirds of the students are still considered to be performing below or well below the standards.

“Sure I would have liked them to be greater growth,” Elia said. “Am I disappointed that they’re not? Yes.”

But she says she knows a big change in standards, as has occurred under Common Core, takes time. 

New York City students performed better on the tests that their upstate counterparts at large urban districts. Black and Hispanic students generally did worse on the tests.

Overall, students at richer schools did better than those at poorer ones. Elia says more focus on early childhood education could help improve the scores in the future.

The growing opt out movement had a big impact on the exams. Education officials say 20 percent of children statewide boycotted the tests.

Elia says she is talking to federal education officials about whether there will be sanctions against school districts where a large number of students skipped the tests.

The federal government has the power to withhold funding for schools.

She did not offer an opinion on whether there should be penalties for the schools.  And she says she and other education leaders need to convince parents and teachers who have doubts about the validity of the tests.

“We’ve got to do a better job,” Elia said.

The test scores will be used to evaluate teachers. Under a new plan pressed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and adopted by the state legislature as part of the budget, half of a teacher’s performance review could be based on how well the students do on the exams.  

It could be more difficult to complete the teacher reviews at schools where many kids missed the tests.  

The teacher’s union, New York State United Teachers, called the test results meaningless.

“They aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “These test results are not reliable, valid or accurate indicators of either student learning or teacher effectiveness.”

Elia counters that there’s still valuable data from the 900,000 students who did take the exams.  

“It’s disingenuous to just say automatically that these test aren’t worth anything,” Elia said.

Elia says the state has contracted with a new testing design company, and she hopes to make a fresh start with teachers, letting them have more say in how the exams are written.

Korn says the teachers in the union also have hopes that they will have more input into the next set of exams.

Elia says despite the problems, she remains committed to higher standards — but she is conducting a comprehensive review of the Common Core standards and how New York handled their implementation.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.