High standards, school testing: Not an end, but a beginning of education

High standards, school testing: Not an end, but a beginning of education
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Like broken clocks, opponents of higher academic standards are trying to jump on a problem in some states that utilized computerized annual assessments this year. And like broken clocks, opponents provide the wrong answer — proposing to scrap objective, universal assessments altogether.

Recently, New York and other states that use Questar as the vendor for their federally required annual Math and English Language Arts (ELA) assessments experienced a one-day interruption in their ability to smoothly administer computerized tests. In New York, that meant a relatively small number of districts out of over 730 statewide. All of those districts had six other days to administer the computerized tests.

In short, the testing problem was a molehill, but opponents wanted to make it into a mountain because they see the assessments have taken hold and become part of the annual fabric of the academic year.

What we’re seeing in classrooms across New York state — the country’s largest public school system charged with preparing over 2.6 million students for success — is a great example why.

Until high standards were introduced, New York had no objective means to measure how all students were progressing on meeting the tougher expectations of a 21st Century world — both their strengths and the areas where they were struggling.

As a result, this broken system fed into existing social inequalities. Many of New York’s most vulnerable students, particularly those in low-income and minority communities, saw a bad situation made worse and simply fell through the cracks of the system. These inequities were made worse because we could not measure how far they had fallen behind and give assistance. While students in affluent areas with plenty of school resources did fine (until they reached college and failed to finish, at record levels), the other children were falling behind.

That systemic inequality began to finally be tackled fully when New York state adopted the Common Core in 2010. While opponents will never pass up the opportunity to showcase the Common Core’s rocky start, they are missing the key fact: The introduction of these standards was not simply an end to the conversation, rather it was the beginning of an amazing public process.

Over the past two years, state education leaders have proactively worked together with parents, teachers, community leaders, and education experts in a process to review, revise, and implement an improved set of standards and assessments. Committees took the time to evaluate every single individual standard to ensure it was appropriate, and yet challenging, for each grade. And teachers wrote and reviewed every single assessment question. Once initial recommendations were put forward, the state opened up two public comment periods to hear suggestions, concerns, and priorities directly from the public.

The result: comprehensive improvement not just in content of the standards, but changes to the entire testing process. In 2017, the Common Core even got a new name to reflect how much work was put into making it truly more reflective of our state: New York’s Next Generation Learning Standards.

In New York, “the top” listened to public’s input and implemented the suggestions. Unlike a top-down education system, today the Next Generation Standards-aligned questions are drafted and approved by New York teachers and educators. Testing time has been reduced to two days per test. Student stress has been addressed by removing testing time limits. The state can now shift more attention to next-level improvements, including computer-based and computer-adaptive testing. Rather than receiving their scores the following summer, computerized tests allow students and teachers to receive feedback that very school year, allowing them to address student issues quickly.

We’ve already seen the impact higher standards and universal assessments has had on our students. The average proficiency scores in both ELA and Math in 2017 across New York’s “Big 5” cities — New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers — increased from the 2016 scores.

Preparing all students across the state for careers and challenges won’t happen overnight; there is still much hard work to be done. The achievement gap between affluent and low income communities is shrinking but remains too great, and proficiency levels are still too low. But we can confidently look at the steps forward already taken and know we are on the right path — not just for some, but for all.

For opponents of higher standards and universal objective assessments, we say this: Work with us to improve what we have; don’t threaten to throw it all out.

When it comes to educating our children, there is always much more work remaining and a lot of steps to take. And that’s exactly what New York and other states around the country are doing.

The clock is working and is ticking loud and clear: Preparing all students to achieve through higher standards will allow them to compete for well-paying careers in the 21st Century.

Brenda McDuffie is president and CEO of the Buffalo Urban League. Sebrone Johnson is senior director of the Urban League of Rochester. Both are members of High Achievement New York.