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The Question They Missed Was On The Test

Senator Jack Martins (R-Mineola) asked a very good question last week at the State Senate’s Education Committee hearing in Manhattan. The topic was the Common Core standards, testing and the general state of school reform — hot-button issues that have created anger and confusion in local schools districts, as well as throughout the state. 


Martins wanted to know why the tests given to our public school students last year were composed as though the kids had been studying a Common Core curriculum for years. Why hadn’t the Common Core-style questions been phased in, aligned with what the kids had already been taught?


He got no real answers, though Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s teachers’ union, ventured that the state didn’t want to spend the money for such an approach. A battery of full-force


Common Core tests was cheaper.


Chancellor of the State Board of Regents Merryl Tisch admitted the tests “created a lot of upheaval and displacement,” but her testimony suggested she viewed the problem as more of a hiccup than an educational heart attack.


Yet chest-clutching and shortness of breath were what many parents felt in August when the results of these exams were released, showing that no more than 70 percent of the test-takers in Nassau County’s best school districts passed.

Most did much worse. Suddenly, parents who had long been told that their kids were doing well in school felt betrayed.


“If they had been doing so well, how come they couldn’t pass this test?”


Compounding the consternation, precisely what the individual kids got wrong and right wasn’t released. In fact, the test questions still haven’t been released, and it is unlikely they ever will.


I maintain that the secrecy and impossibly difficult questions on the 2012 test were no bureaucratic snafu, as Tisch and other state officials would have us believe.


I see it as a brilliantly executed campaign to not only sell states and school districts billions of dollars’ worth of new books, training material, computer programs and testing services, but also to make parents question the value of public schools. (“Obviously, local school boards don’t know what they are doing. Otherwise, our kids would be as capable as any kids in Korea, Japan, Finland, Canada and Belgium where they must have their own version of the Common Core.

You know, maybe charter schools, online schools and for-profit schools aren’t such a bad idea.”)


Without creating this “crisis,” we wouldn’t believe that the Common Core is educational alchemy that must be implemented right now!  We are taking big action with huge consequences while in a panic.


The Common Core standards are a galaxy of skills dreamed up by governors, politicians, business types and educational gurus who have never taught K-12. The standards are supposed to instill deeper thinking and better problem-solving than what we are teaching our kids now. It has been three years since the state decided to adopt the Common Core, yet it is rare for a classroom teacher to have an actual curriculum to follow.


Put simply, the standards tell educators where they are supposed to take the students, and the curriculum is the road map. Daily lesson plans, classroom activities and homework are the vehicle. At best, most Nassau County districts have only pieces of the road map. 


And, of course, kids who already are deep in their public school careers aren’t going to get a full Common Core education. Since this year’s academic knowledge is built on a foundation composed of previous years’ knowledge, a kid now in, say, 8th grade, will get no more than five years of Common Core work before graduating from high school. And that Common Core work will be built on a non-Common Core foundation. Is this a problem? Not intellectually. The

Common Core is not a crash course in world-class braininess, just a different educational emphasis. But that 8th grader will have a problem if the tests he or she must take along the way are written as though the kid has had the full

Common Core treatment. Which is what our kids faced last year.


That brings us back to Jack Martins’ question — why can’t Common Core-style test questions be phased in?


Because that might prove we don’t have a “crisis” that can only be solved by radical, emergency surgery on an educational system that once was the envy of the world.


John Owens is editor in chief of Anton Community Newspapers, and author of Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth from the Front Lines of American Public Education (Sourcebooks, 2013). Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it