Common Core Tests Loom, Intensifying Debate in NY

Common Core and Standardized Tests

Long Island educators and New York State lawmakers are scrambling to avoid a repeat of last year’s controversial Common Core curriculum-mandated tests before the next round of exams are given in April.

After a four-hour debate Thursday, the state Assembly voted down a proposal by Assemb. Al Graf (R-Holbrook) and Ed Ra (R-Franklin Square) to halt Common Core in New York State. With the curriculum going full steam ahead, Suffolk County’s superintendents last week appealed to Gov. Andrew Cuomo—days after the governor addressed the issue in a TV commercial that debuted.

“Cancel [the test], then start working right away on getting it right,” Suffolk County Superintendents Association (SCSA) President and Middle Country superintendent Roberta Gerold, who co-wrote the letter to Cuomo, told the Press.  “The hope is that whatever tests we put in place are measuring the curriculum that’s being taught and with the Common Core, the curriculum was pushed in so quickly along with the testing that there was no chance to prepare.”

The troubled implementation was shown in only 31 percent of 3-8 grade students statewide passing the state’s new tests last year, according to state education department, unleashing a fury of protest from parents and teachers.

Long Island Parents & Teachers Revolt Against Common Core

After the Common Core delay bill failed, protestors rallied outside the Smithtown office of state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), chairman of the Senate education committee, calling on him to support the legislation. He instead left the door open to support a proposal by Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) that would allow school districts to opt out of Common Core while a commission reviews the curriculum.

The SCSA letter urged Cuomo to step in on behalf of the students and halt this year’s testing until Common Core is implemented fully to “avoid students, once again, being tested on materials not yet taught,” the letter states.

This letter was a last ditch effort to get change before the tests after similar letters to the Board of Regents fell on deaf ears, prompting the SCSA to appeal directly to the governor.  It was sent to Cuomo days after he aired a campaign ad last weekend that takes state testing to task.

“It creates anxiety and it’s just unfair,” Cuomo said in the commercial. “And their scores should not be counted against them.”

This was a stunning acknowledgement from a governor who has shown staunch support of education reform. Yet, even if the scores are rendered meaningless but the state, students must still take the tests.

Same as Cuomo, SCSA does not favor abolishing Common Core, which they support, but to undo the damage of the testing cycle by taking a deep breath, gathering the materials they need to teach the new curriculum to the students and then rolling back into testing next year. This time, they want to do it right.

“You had kids being tested on stuff they were never taught, material the teachers had yet to see and to master, real shifts in how you process math problems, shifts in the length of reading passages and the level of vocabulary that was in the passage and a level of thinking and comprehension that was dramatically changed,” Michael Mensch, the letter’s other co-author and Chief Operating Officer of Western Suffolk BOCES, said of the rigorous new standards. “Everybody was coming forward saying, We’re lost! We don’t have the materials… It appears to be the way to go, but getting there has been extremely flawed.”

Mensch pointed out the process has been turned upside down.

“In a traditional pathway of instruction for teaching children, you teach the material, then you do a benchmark: what do they know?” he explained. “Then you would teach material, administer exams, then you would do what is called an item analysis.

“I have a class of 25 kids,” he continued. “I think I taught them fractions. I give them this benchmark and half the class gets these items wrong. So I know I missed something, so I go back and I work on it. That’s not what these exams do. They pump out a score. Teachers never see the exams. They don’t see the questions. The whole process is structurally wrong.”

The superintendents do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, however. They are not in favor of dispensing with the entirety of educational reform. They support higher standards of education. If fact, they welcome it.

“No one’s opposed to having more rigor in the curriculum,” said Gerold. “In fact, that’s kind of welcome to have the push from outside telling us we have to get it done. Sometimes you need that. My worry is that people are impatient with the Common Core itself because the assessment process was put in so poorly.”

But, because $700 million of the Race to the Top federal funds that were allocated to New York State are contingent upon the full implementation of the Common Core curriculum, including 95 percent of each school district administering state assessments for grades 3 through 8, the threat of losing that money has made lawmakers reluctant to reform the program.

“The money that we spent was to move forward the data piece,” said Gerold. “It wasn’t that much money—$78,000 I believe over four years…The money should be used to put the systems in place accurately and quickly, the results are going to be realized faster than having them shoved through the way in which they’ve been shoved through, distracted by all of this protest.”

Mensch believes the way around giving back the Race to the Top funds is to file a waiver and appeal to what he believes is common sense.

“There’s a waiver process,” he said. “Submit a waiver and say we’re unable to do this right now for the following reasons. We’re of the mind that there’s sufficient evidence that the rollout is so flawed that they need to get a waiver for a least a year to protect these kids from sitting in front of these crazy exams and frankly being punished by it.”

Stefanie Baranek, a mother of three from East Islip who opted her sons out of the state tests, is growing impatient in the meantime.

“The whole thing just gets me crazy,” she said. “If they dismantle some of this test-taking urgency, I think it will release some of the pressure. People start to look at it more intelligently.”

Mensch, like others involved in the fight, suspect election-year politics is further complicating their efforts.

“Why is the governor and the [education] commissioner so reluctant to do what’s right?” Mensch asks rhetorically. “It’s because they’re going to look bad. It’s politics.”

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