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The Land Of Good Intentions Meets Reality

Roger Tilles is Long Island’s representative on the New York State Board of Regents. He was asked to speak on testing by the local chapter of the League of Women Voters last Wednesday evening at the Port Washington Public Library. He opened his talk referring to this column, saying he’d been accused of being “clueless about education,” but “what do you expect?” from this newspaper.

At this point, I could make a crack about a failing grade on reading comprehension of the piece in the Sept. 18-24 edition, but I will refrain. I respect Tilles’ knowledge of education. It’s voluminous, and decades in the making at the highest levels of government. I also agree with him on many issues. That’s why it’s so troubling that he’s such a booster of the Common Core standards.

Tilles’s topic was how various state exams that were supposed to be “diagnostic” — that is, help teachers and parents understand precisely what each kid does and doesn’t know — have turned into tools, even weapons, for evaluating and punishing teachers. If the kids score well, the teacher is a good teacher. If the kids don’t, the teacher is a bad teacher. Like everyone else who actually understands education (not just makes laws about it), Tilles is against using these tests to rate teachers.

“When you add in using the tests for evaluation, you create fear,” he said, indicating that to avoid bad scores, teachers make class time into test-prep time.

Pressure for test-prep also comes from the top, as the test scores, in effect, rate everyone from teachers to principals to district superintendents.

This past August, we saw the fear, confusion and panic that low scores bring when the state published the results for English Language Arts and Math exams based on the Common Core standards. School districts that are by any other measure “elite,” showed no more than 65 percent of their kids passing.

“Those were first-year problems,” Tilles said. “Glitches. I know the scores will be better next year.”

At the same time, he said, “I don’t know either how those tests were scored,” and that  the numbers are “massaged” by the state education department.

“It is being used in ways that are downright dangerous,” he said of the data.

Nonetheless, he disagrees with the growing movement of parents and schools refusing the tests. And Tilles is not backing off his support of the Common Core standards.

A set of skills and topics that students must master over their K-12 careers, the Common Core was as much dreamed up as developed. These standards haven’t really been tested, but we are assured they are much more demanding and involve “deeper thinking” than our current standards. They are designed for, promoters say as a mantra, “college and career readiness.”

As Tilles sees it, the Common Core standards shouldn’t get derailed or sullied by the current culture of testing and using the scores in punitive ways.

And that’s the rub. Tilles is talking about a fantasy. He is imagining a place that is not New York State. It would be nice to believe that his vision could happen — but he admits that he is often the minority voice in advocating for rational measures on the Board of Regents.

With a governor who speaks of education in terms of “accountability” and a “death penalty” for failing schools, we’re more likely to see unicorns than tests of the new standards used only for diagnostics. There are many politicians and business people eager for new “proof” that our schools are failing. And tests based on the Common Core will prove that — especially if the education department’s voodoo grading continues.

A few more rounds of shocking test scores, and the image that much of public education is a lost cause will be complete. Then, there will be calls for “fresh new ideas” that make public education cheaper and more efficient, such as  replacing the current system with everything from “education entrepreneurs” to “visionaries” who use software instead of teachers.

That’s not what I want, you want or Roger Tilles wants. But in our current political environment, that’s where support of the Common Core will lead. Unfortunately, the unicorns have left the building.

John Owens is editor-in-chief of Anton Community Newspapers.