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Commissioners Channel Chicken Little

Now, we’re supposed to be really scared. It was bad enough when the news broke last week that third- through eighth-graders around New York had performed horribly on new state math and English tests. But when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. said that the results were even worse than expected, many parents and other taxpayers were overcome with consternation.

“Worse than expected?!”

“With all of the school taxes I pay?”

“Local officials, principals and teachers had been telling us our kids were doing fine. But now?”

Damage control interrupted many vacations as superintendents and principals around Nassau assured parents that these test scores weren’t very meaningful since local schools hadn’t had a chance to prepare and teach the curriculum tested. The message was, “Don’t worry, soon the numbers will be just fine.”

In some area districts, the majority of kids didn’t pass the tests. Even “elite” districts such as Garden City, Great Neck, Herricks, Jericho, Manhasset, and Roslyn rarely had passing rates exceeding 70 percent.

It’s the kind of news that makes it tough for parents to feel a lot of confidence, especially when Commissioner King said, “Our former standards did not prepare all of our students for 21st century college and careers.”

But wait. If you feel like you’re being conned, you’re not alone.

Many of our kids are very well prepared for life after graduation. The number of Intel scholars and Ivy League acceptances around here speak to that.

And where did this test come from? The state is quite infamous for poorly constructed exams with ambiguous answers and irrelevant questions.

Even so, Duncan and King would say, half of all community college freshmen in the state require remedial courses.

True. But how is a tougher curriculum going to help? Obviously, these kids can’t cut it under what we’re told amounts to k-12 “cake courses.” So what makes anyone think they’ll do better if the bar is raised higher? They won’t, unless they get a lot of support and extra help. The chances of that in these budget-stressed times? Unlikely.

Instead of discussing how to improve our schools and provide a better education for all students, thanks to these tests, school districts throughout the state will focus on “raising those numbers.”

There’s no question that subsequent state scores will be carefully studied and compared to the 2013 numbers. The gains and losses will play a major role in everything from budget votes to teacher contracts to how and what the kids are taught. In some districts, the impact will be huge and disastrous.

Not in the “elite” schools that already score relatively high. Even though a 70 normally is a nausea-inducing number in many of these communities, most of their kids are doing just fine. Boosting their numbers shouldn’t take more than just tweaks in teaching and curriculum. In other words, these new exams won’t have much impact on their long-successful approaches that provide an education dense with academic, arts and athletic programs.

But in districts with far more numerical ground to make up, expect lots of class time spent on practice tests, test-taking techniques and drills. Much the way high school students prepare for the SAT. The difference is that now, for many kids, so much of their school experience will be like a never-ending SAT prep class.

Is that the way to prepare for what Commissioner King calls “21st Century college and careers?” I don’t think so. These tests and the higher bars set by the Common Core curriculum won’t — unless accompanied by an outpouring of support and help for struggling students — enhance learning or what the bureaucrats call “student achievement.” Until that investment is made, all of this talk about testing is just noise, and these new exams will just increase the real education gap between the “elites” and everyone else.

John Owens’ new book, Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth from the Front Lines of American Public Education, is an eye-opening expose of the state of “school reform” and a galvanizing call to action for parents and communities. It is now available at, and booksellers everywhere.