One big problem with the federal No Child Left Behind law is that it leaves standards, curriculum and testing to the states. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if the states are going to be penalized if too many kids fail those tests, they’re going to be tempted to dumb them down. And that’s exactly what has been going on in New York state, according to no less an authority than Education Commissioner David Steiner. So the much-ballyhooed improvement in English and math test scores in recent years was all on paper. In reality, kids weren’t learning more.
Ever since former Education Commissioner Richard Mills came here in the mid-1990s, New York has been congratulating itself on its high standards and rigorous curriculum. They were used, along with the achievement gap between whites and minorities, as justification for huge school aid increases just about every year.
But, curiously enough, when our purportedly improving fourth- and eighth-grade students have taken the highly regarded National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in the past, their progress has been basically flat. And in the last four years, according to Harvard researchers, state tests have become even easier to pass compared to the national exams and New York students are doing less well on them than all students nationally — raising the question of whether they are actually learning less. This does a lot to explain, for example, why a student who passes the state’s eighth-grade math test has only a one in three chance of passing the high school math Regents with a high enough score to be considered ready for college math.
However, change is in the air. Monday, the same day the story about the test scores came out, New York signed on to a set of national common core standards (developed by the states, not the federal government) that 26 other states have already adopted, and another dozen or so are expected to in the next couple of weeks. Such standards — which spell out exactly what kids in certain grades should know and be able to do, regardless of where they live — always made sense. But states have insisted on local control.
Now, all of a sudden, the resistance to national standards is fading, with governors, state education officials and teacher unions all getting on board. Whatever has caused this change of heart — their experience with No Child Left Behind, budget problems (all that state-by-state standards, curriculum and test writing costs a lot of money), Bill Gates Foundation grants for those who adopt national standards, a shot at a share of the Obama’s administration $3.4 billion Race to the Top pot to be awarded in September, an actual belief that national standards will be better, or some combination of these things — it is welcome.
How do New York’s standards compare to the national ones? Not very well, according to the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank that recently issued a study comparing all the states’ standards to the national ones in terms of clarity and specificity, content and rigor. For English Language Arts, New York got a grade of C compared to a B plus for the national standards; for math, a B vs. an A minus.
And if you have national core standards, why not national tests? The NAEPs are already accepted as a valid measure of achievement. Expand and use them. Get rid of those armies of state education bureaucrats who develop separate standards, curriculum and tests, “metrics” and “rubrics”; save some money; and, most important, perhaps even improve education.