Tests are at the core of failure

By Patricia Fahy, Commentary, Albany Times Union

Are more than two-thirds of our New York State students really "failures?"

Of course not.

However, that's the feeling many have been left with following the State Education Department's first try at new and tougher math and English language arts tests last spring.

The Board of Regents and SED tell us we should not worry and that the plummeting scores are only a baseline from which to measure growth in future years.

But we should worry. No matter its intent, SED has effectively labeled students, their teachers and entire districts as failures in its hasty implementation of these new tests aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards.

Who has really failed here? When tests are administered properly, they are an effective assessment tool, but should not be the primary tool to improve education. Unfortunately, testing has become the go-to tool in SED's toolbox.

Standardized tests do not educate students; parents, teachers and communities do. Questions being raised about the dramatic increase in school tests in New York are legitimate, and the state's answer — that testing based on the Common Core will help better prepare students for college and careers — is not sufficient.

Accountability is essential at all levels of education, but nonstop testing is far from the only avenue to achieve it, especially when the state does not provide teachers and school districts sufficient tools necessary to be successful in their all-important work.

SED is relying on a shaky belief that high-stakes testing will result in higher student achievement. It prematurely launched testing of the Common Core before teachers could adequately prepare their students.

The dramatic drop in results across the state, with more than two-thirds of students failing to meeting proficiency, say more about the failure to properly implement and execute new policy than they do about our students' future prospects.

The new state tests last school year were accompanied by a multitude of other new tests and mandates, most notably the new teacher-evaluation system, the Annual Professional Performance Review. APPR required new pre- and post-tests for students in an effort to evaluate teachers in the same year the state raised the stakes so steeply in math and English.

SED's goal to better prepare students for college and careers is a worthy one, and standards do need to be raised. However, simply raising a bar again on students who never cleared the lower one shatters student self-esteem and reinforces a sense of failure, particularly in high poverty urban schools.

The disparity between urban and suburban districts is growing. It is being fueled by SED's overemphasis on testing while failing to provide adequate resources for smaller classes, after-school and summer programs, parental engagement and more — all necessary components for building academic success.

This is not the way to urge our young people to strive for college and career success.

Schools should be expected to help all students succeed and be held accountable for results. Our children and our communities deserve nothing less.

But until SED broadens its approach to student achievement and offers a real plan to deal with myriad academic and fiscal issues we face, New York's students will be poorly served.

And that is a failure that no one in New York State should accept.