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Standardized test scores inch up in New York


The results of this year’s Common Core-related standardized tests show scores for New York’s schoolchildren inching up. About one-fifth of the children boycotted the tests altogether because of continued controversy over the Common Core learning standards.

State Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia said she’s pleased with the progress made in the 2017 test results. While scores improved by nearly 2 percent from last year, the results show that only about 40 percent of students in grades three through eight are considered proficient in English and math.

Elia said she’s keeping her eye on the big picture and trying to see the positive in the results.

“We are on a trajectory of moving forward and upward,” Elia said. “And that’s a good thing.” 

She said there was slight improvement in New York City and in upstate’s largest cities. Children of all ethnicities performed better on the 2017 tests than they did in 2016.

But she admitted there is still a large gap in the test scores of children from richer schools, where around two-thirds scored highly on the tests, and the results in poorer schools. About one-third of children in rural districts and about 37 percent in New York City were considered proficient in the skills they need in English and math, while just an average of 16 percent of students in upstate city schools performed well on the tests.

“The issue of gaps between students across the state is a major focus,” Elia said.

The test results come amid ongoing controversy over the Common Core learning standards and the related tests. The animosity between teachers, parents and education leaders has calmed somewhat under Elia’s now two-year tenure.

The new commissioner went on a statewide listening tour to hear complaints. The Board of Regents, which sets education policy in New York, has gained new members who are skeptical of Common Core. And there’s been a moratorium on the test results being used to negatively evaluate students or their teachers.

But the state’s largest teachers union, New York State United Teachers, called the 2017 test results “virtually meaningless.”

NYSUT President Andy Pallotta, speaking before the test results were released, said the tests are part of what was a “broken” system.

Elia, who began her career as a teacher, said the tests are being revamped, and teachers will have more input into the test design and questions in future years. She said the tests will be downsized from a three-day event to two days of questions.

“There will be fewer questions,” said Elia, who added the tests will remain just as rigorous.

Elia and the Board of Regents are revising the teacher and principal evaluations for the fifth time since 2010, and Pallotta said there’s a lot riding on the reforms, including whether the test boycott movement will continue.

While the number of children who skipped the tests in 2017 was 19 percent, down 2 percentage points from 2016, Pallotta doesn’t believe the opt-outs will truly end until parents and teachers are satisfied with the changes.

“A lot of parents are waiting to see what New York state, the education officials, the Legislature will do to address their concerns,” Pallotta said.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the state’s charter schools say they are pleased with the test results. They say the test results show that charter school students scored higher on the exams than did public school students.

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.