The New York Times reported on Tuesday (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/13/nyregion/13waiver.html?ref=education) that the New York State Board of Regents is likely to “excuse school districts from a requirement to provide extra help to all students who fail the state’s standardized exams, a number that grew by hundreds of thousands after the state made the exams tougher to pass this year.”
(Did you catch that? Hundreds. Of. Thousands.)
My immediate reaction to that opening paragraph was outrage, but this is actually a pretty complicated issue with two legitimate sides. Let’s take a look.
Testing in the wake of No Child Left Behind (a very well-intentioned piece of legislation) is, to put it mildly, a mess. States must now test their students across a range of grades, and I believe that they all have testing requirements for graduation. Unfortunately, each state uses its own set of tests! States can either produce easy tests (that make the state’s numbers look good but definitely don’t help kids) or produce hard tests (that guarantee a certain degree of rigor but probably result in lower pass rates). New York’s Regents exams are actually pretty rigorous, and as an additional credit to New York, they raised their standards for passing this summer.
Those higher standards had an enormous impact on the number of students this policy would affect. According to the article, 108,000 students would have passed the English test, and 125,000 would have passed in math. Schools had already submitted their budgets when test results came out, and they simply don’t have the funds now to provide extra tutoring or counseling to that many extra failing students.
I understand that. Money is tight everywhere, and schools have already had to make painful cuts to important programs. But then again, what is most important?
The bottom line here is that New York City has 239,000 students who failed the English test and 196,000 who failed the math test. I applaud the state for raising its standards; that takes a courageous indifference to public outcry that we don’t often see. I find it surprising, then, that they aren’t willing to see this all the way through. Why raise standards if you aren’t prepared to deal with the after effects? Surely no one assumed that the number of failing students wouldn’t rise significantly. They can’t just ignore these students now that they know about them! These hundreds of thousands of kids are individuals with futures (bleak ones), and they need real help.
But on the other hand… what kind of help do they need? I’m not sure what’s involved in the tutoring and counseling referred to in the article, but I’m going to take a wild guess and say they’re not sufficient. We hear a lot of talk in education about “Band-Aid solutions” (Teach For America is commonly cited as one), and after-the-fact educational assistance like tutoring doesn’t address the root causes of the initial failure. The Board of Regents needs to come up with a plan for how to prevent students from failing in this and future years, and that starts with rigorous standards for teachers and comprehensive approaches to student wellness, engagement, and investment.
I’m inclined to agree with New York’s deputy chancellor for performance and accountability, who said, “I don’t think the Regents’ vote will have much impact one way or another”. Perhaps not on the academic outcomes for these students… but it may signal a cowardice that will not advance the reforms in the works for New York.