By Jessica Bakeman, Gannett Albany Bureau
ALBANY - The problem: Just three quarters of students in New York graduate high school in four years and fewer than half of them are prepared for college, despite the fact that New York spends more money per pupil on education than any other state.
The "answer": A new, more challenging state-mandated curriculum, called the Common Core.
That's the pitch the state Education Department has made to educators, parents and students. And beginning next week, the first state exams based on the stringent standards will be administered in the third through eighth grades.
Students in third through eighth grades will take the new Common Core state tests starting this week. Language arts exams will be administered April 16-18, and math exams will be April 24-26.
School officials throughout the state widely agree that adopting the Common Core is the right move. But the upcoming tests have incited a struggle between the state and school communities -- and is leading to protests by some parents. Teachers are also worried that the test scores could impact their own job performance ratings.
Education Commissioner John King argues that schools can't put off improving instruction any longer. Teachers and parents say the change was rushed and kids are not ready for it.
"Clearly, we have moved down this path at lightning speed," said Mary Beth Fiore, superintendent of Elmira Heights schools in Chemung County. "Some of the materials have not even been developed yet. Teachers are continuing to teach students in the current system, and yet we are going to test them under the new system."
The chief concern among schools has been how quickly the new curriculum was rolled out. Teachers must create new lesson plans, and students must adapt to a new way of thinking, school officials said.
But the state refutes claims that schools did not have enough time to prepare.
The Board of Regents voted to adopt the Common Core, which is already being used in other states, in July 2010. In 2011, the board announced that schools would begin using tests based on the Common Core learning standards in the 2012-13 school year.
The Education Department asked schools to begin experimenting with Common Core-based lessons last school year, and the state began to provide professional development and post materials online that schools could use, said Ken Wagner, an associate state education commissioner.
Students' scores on state tests have consistently been much higher than on national tests, so the education department hopes the Common Core test results will provide insight into where New York students are falling behind.
"The students right now are graduating into a world where the demands of the Common Core are present, whether they're looking to get a job that they need with a livable wage and meaningful advancement, or they're looking to get into the college that they want to get into," Wagner said. "Every year, way over 100,000 students finish their fourth year of high school without those kinds of skills. So if we were to wait another year ... we would be saying that it's OK."
A 'deeper' curriculum
With the transition to a more difficult curriculum comes the expectation that students' test scores will drop, maybe by as much as 30 percent, state officials said. Last year, 55 percent of third through eighth graders met statewide proficiency standards in language arts, and 65 percent were proficient in math.
But the short-term struggle will be worth the long-term gains, King argued in a video to parents Thursday.
"As we looked at flat test scores in New York and across the country, it was impossible to ignore a few sobering facts," King said. "We're not faring as well as we should be in the new global marketplace. Too many of our graduates aren't prepared to succeed in college or their careers. The Common Core state standards are the answer to this problem."
Educators widely agree. Teachers said the material they've been expected to teach students until now has been "miles long but inches deep." The Common Core requires advanced problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, more aligned to the demands of the modern job market.
"If the lessons are taught correctly, students will have an opportunity to really learn concepts deeply -- far more deeply than they ever have before. And that's a good thing. That's a really good thing," said Beverly Voss, a seventh grade math teacher in Webster, Monroe County.
But Voss and other teachers said they have not had access to resources and materials that would allow them to teach the lessons successfully.
For that reason, the New York State United Teachers, a statewide union, launched a $250,000 advertising campaign denouncing the tests. The union has gathered more than 8,000 signatures from parents and teachers asking the state to delay the tests, and teachers have written more than 10,000 letters in support of the delay. NYSUT is sending the letters daily to the state in batches of 100.
Despite the campaign, the union recognizes that the state will go forward with the exams. Richard Iannuzzi, NYSUT president, said he hopes the tests won't be used to determine student placement or teacher performance.
"The reality is that the test is going to be given," Iannuzzi said. "But the compromise that we're looking for is for the commissioner to say very clearly to parents and to teachers that this test should not be used for high stakes."
Parents push back, 'opt out'
Parents are complaining that the state is setting up their children to fail.
They fear this year's lower test scores will be used to decide whether students are promoted to the next grade or placed in special education courses. Wagner said the department has instructed school districts not to use the tests to make placement decisions.
"We have communicated very clearly that districts should not hold this against students," he said.
But some parents are threatening to boycott the tests, keeping their children home from school on exam days. The language arts exams will be administered throughout the state April 16-18, and the math tests will be April 24-26.
Students are required by law to sit for state exams, but there is no way to force a student to take a test. Parents are turning in "opt-out" forms to principals, asking that their children be excused from the tests.
Willa Powell, the only Rochester school board member who has a child in the third through eighth grades, notified her son's school that he would refuse to take the tests.
"(The ) state education department can impose testing upon our institution, and demand that principal and teacher evaluations be based on the results," Powell said in a statement Friday. "But as a parent, and let me be very clear that I am speaking as a parent, in terms that even a pre-schooler can understand: Dr. King, you aren't the boss of me."
In New Paltz, Ulster County, dissenting parents plan to send their children to school wearing green in silent protest.
"We're torn," said Maria Rice, superintendent of New Paltz schools. Her district's school board is one of several throughout the state that has approved a resolution symbolically denouncing the tests.
"Do we believe that all of this assessment for one point in time is in the best interest of the education of our children? No," Rice said. "We believe that this is more political than it is educational. But we will comply with the law, and we're going to move forward."
The "opt-out" movement also communicates parents' frustrations with how many tests their children are taking, they said.
"It's over-testing. It's gotten to a point where it's not significant," said Sally Pinto, whose daughter is a fifth grader in Yonkers. "I tell my kids, don't worry about it. Don't worry about the test. It has nothing to do with you."
Dan Cogan, whose daughter is in third grade in Ithaca, said the emphasis on tests has taken the fun out of learning. He's concerned children will lose interest in school.
"I think they're going to get the message: School's too hard; I'm not good at school," he said.
State officials stressed that "opting out" of exams is not an option. Wagner said parents who want their kids to skip the tests are doing them a disservice.
"We think that parents who say that their students, their children, shouldn't take the tests, or teachers that say these tests are not important -- it's really the same thing as saying: I don't want to know how my children or my students are doing on their path toward becoming college and career ready," Wagner said. "And we think that is not a good way to serve students' needs."
Students, teachers report anxiety
Parents and teachers have said that students are stressed about the upcoming exams.
Robert Reis, an eighth-grade English teacher in White Plains, Westchester County, said his students are more anxious than he's seen in his 15 years in the classroom. The older students are bracing themselves for about eight hours of exams, between the language arts and math tests.
"There has always been the typical student who would stress out about a test to the point of getting sick or crying. I see a lot more of that," Reis said. "I've seen kids who have vomited, kids with bowel issues needing to go to the bathroom, biting their nails, kids who cry -- even with the test-prep materials -- because they fear that they're not good enough."
State officials have acknowledged students' climbing stress levels. But, Wagner said, it's better for the kids to struggle now than when they're in college or the work force.
The state has encouraged parents and teachers to send positive messages to students about the tests.
Bolgen Vargas, superintendent of Rochester schools, said at an event Thursday that the district has worked with teachers and families to calm students.
"There is nothing to fear as long as we give our students the support they need to be successful," Vargas said.
And students aren't the only ones fearing the test results. Under the new state-mandated evaluation system, test scores will be used as an indicator of teachers' and principals' performance.
The transition is stressful, "especially for teachers in the classroom and principals in the buildings who are going to be accountable for student results," Fiore, from Elmira Heights, said. "And yet their results are based on an assessment system that has changed prior to the instruction changing. It has everyone concerned."
The state has said teachers won't suffer because of the expected lower scores. Similar teachers with similar students will be compared to each other, rather than the lower scores being compared to last year's tests, Wagner explained.
James Palermo, principal of a school in Rochester with kindergarteners through seventh graders, said he has worked to ease tensions among the faculty. He advised teachers to focus on good instruction, not on the tests, he said.
"The work is the work, and the scores are the scores," Palermo said. "So, if we take care of the things that we need to in the classroom, then the rest should take care of itself."