EDITORIAL: What’s the use of new tests?

THE THREE OF THEM had Chatham’s green to themselves on a warm evening this week. The boys, both blond, maybe five and three years old, played the way brothers do, running from sidewalk to lawn and back, leaning against the bench before launching themselves again. They ignored the young man next to them on the bench and he ignored them. The man, about 30, was hunched forward, absorbed with the phone in his hands.
Easy to judge someone like that and label him a bad parent. Pay attention to your kids! You’ll miss the moment! But, really, what’s so new about the disconnect between generations? Everybody in this scene was healthy and happy. What’s the problem?

Maybe it has something to do with our technology or and how quickly our cultural habits seem to have changed. For evidence more concrete than a glimpse of modern life on the green, consider the results released earlier this month by the state Education Department for the statewide English and math tests for grades 3 to 8 that, for the first time applied something called the Common Core Learning Standards. The numbers were not good for the state or for schools in this county.

Chatham discussed its results at a recent Board of Education meeting, much like other districts have done or soon will. Overall, more than half–sometimes as many as three-quarters or more of students in the district–performed below what the state sets as the standard for proficiency in the two most basic subjects. The figures for the whole state show that fewer than a third of students are proficient in the English Language Arts and mathematics.

This state has been obsessed with test results for decades and with good reason. Not so long ago some schools awarded diplomas to kids who could barely read or add. The state education commissioner at the time said that worthless diplomas cheated students, because telling them they were educated was a lie, and it cheated taxpayers for the obvious reason that we’d paid for a service that was not delivered.

The Common Core tests given to elementary and middle school students last April are the toughest to date and are intended to set what state education officials refer to as a new baseline, with the understanding that we can only go up from here. After so much emphasis placed on test taking for so long, it’s hard not to be skeptical about yet another set of exams. After all, it’s not hard to make a test too tough for little kids to pass.

The challenge is to make ones that help educate the next generation to become better citizens.
One encouraging aspect of the Common Core Learning Standards tests is that they are based on a set of ideas about what kids at various ages should know rather than a specific set of facts as part of a one-size-fits-all approach. The standards project originated with the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, not the federal government. And considering the source, the core ideas expressed sound remarkably clear and straightforward.

For instance, here’s one of the things the Common Core says second graders should be able to do: “Write informative/explanatory texts in which they introduce a topic, use facts and definitions to develop points, and provide a concluding statement or section.” Newspaper editors will want to jot down that advice, too. But do we really need to remind educators that logical writing is something students need to learn? The test scores, even in good schools like most of the ones in this county, suggest that we do, regardless of whether students use a digital device or a pencil and paper.

This latest approach to testing won’t work if the tests become a tool for threatening the jobs of teachers. Schools must have ways to weed out bad teachers, but if the nation is just getting around to rediscovering the importance of skills like writing clearly, then it’s reasonable to assume some teachers now in the classroom weren’t adequately taught those skills when they attended school. So what more efficient way is there to improve test scores and student skills than by supporting teachers rather than blaming them?

Adoption of Common Core Learning Standards might mean that many more students in this county will achieve at least a grade of “Proficient” in the essential skills of citizenship. Let’s hope people will look up from their smart phones long enough to notice.

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