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Inability to measure progress by schools hurts the cause of improving education

There’s a giant asterisk on the latest school test results from the State Education Department. Because of changes in how the tests were administered, it is impossible to draw reliable conclusions. That hurts the state, its schools, teachers and students.

Accountability for that problem bleeds across the education spectrum, ranging from state officials who implemented the Common Core too quickly to teachers unions objecting to use of the scores in assessing their performance to the parents who withhold their children from testing. Incompetence, selfishness and irresponsibility are all wrapped up in this continuing mess. And, as usual, children pay the price.

The test results released this week depict an improvement around the state, even though the achievement level remained distressingly low. But the picture is out of focus because this year’s tests were different from last year’s. There were fewer questions, and students were given more time to complete the exams.

Even then, only 37.9 percent of students were found to be proficient in reading and only 39.1 percent in math. That’s worse than pitiful, though both scores were up, from 31.3 percent in reading and from 38.1 percent in math. But they lead to no conclusions beyond a snapshot comparison among schools and districts because it is impossible to determine if the scores reflect an actual improvement in learning, altered testing conditions or some combination of the two.

Alone, the changes in testing conditions are not terrible – at least, not wholly terrible. It is possible that the tests needed reconsideration. The adoption of Common Core standards marked a significant change in education, and a useful one, but it’s important to make course corrections as necessary. Any broad and significant public program is bound to require revisions.

The glitch is in the willful manipulation of test scores through the political machinations of the teachers unions and parents who cheerfully sabotage their own children’s education to make a point. The fear, not unreasonable, is that the sabotage will be self-perpetuating, pursued in many cases by adults who can’t take yes for an answer. About 20 percent of parents have refused to allow their children to take the tests, and they apparently plan to continue on that course.

Indeed, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on Monday told reporters that more changes are coming. If they are truly warranted, that’s appropriate. But the education – and thus the future prospects – of millions of New York children hang in the balance. If, year after year, the state is producing results that cannot be compared to those of previous years, how can weaknesses be identified and corrected? How can successful strategies be identified and replicated? They can’t.

It is important, plainly, to ensure that the tests meet their crucial purpose: to evaluate how well students are learning, teachers are teaching and districts are leading. That requires tests to produce accurate, reliable results.

But we need to get to that point sooner rather than later, and not everyone – especially not the teachers unions and hard-core resisters among parents – will ever agree that the tests meet that standard. It will take strong leadership from the State Education Department and the Board of Regents to get New York to that place as quickly as possible. Given the recent changes on the Board of Regents, though, it’s no slam dunk that that will happen.

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