By Andrew Wolf
Lost in the tidal wave of news surrounding the election was the announcement that State Education Commissioner Richard Mills will be leaving his post after thirteen years.
Mr. Mills began his tenure as a fresh breeze of reform, attempting to impose high academic standards on a sinking system. But he has morphed into a leading apologist for systematic test inflation that undermines educational policy at all levels.
Under Mills’ leadership early on, high school graduation requirements were tightened up to include a requirement that graduates pass five Regents exams. But what Mills failed to realize is that before we see positive results, many children will fail, bad news that Mills had no stomach to reveal. Education is not a one-year sprint, but a thirteen-year marathon. Children who have weak preparation in the lower grades cannot catch up overnight.
So passing scores on the Regents tests were lowered to 55. But even that was not enough. Faced with tens of thousands of failing students, Mills then allowed a systemic scandalous “dumbing down” of the tests.
Last year’s Integrated Math Regents test is a perfect example. A student who can manage 30 points out of 84 points, about 36% on the test, earns a passing grade of 65%! If a student can correctly answer just 10 of the 30 multiple choice questions (worth two points each), and randomly guess on the remaining 20, they have an even chance of passing the entire test on the strength of that alone. That assumes they get not a single point on the longer problem section, where points are awarded for partial answers, even wrong answers.
Despite this, the failure rates are still shocking.
The problem begins in the lower grades. The state, eager to meet the “annual yearly progress” goals of the federal “No Child Left Behind” law, has also inflated scores on the annual math and reading tests administered to children in grades three through eight.
We have been told now for years about the skyrocketing scores on these tests, particularly in math. This year 81% of students scored at or above grade level or “proficient” on the math tests. Then why can’t students then pass the Regents exam once they get to ninth grade, without the educrats having to fix the results?
The truth is that New York’s grade three through eight tests don’t measure real “proficiency,” the kind that translates into real world skills. These tests are dumbed down year after year to make the adults - superintendents, chancellors, school boards and even mayors - look better.
But the students don’t fare quite so well. No child becomes smarter when given an inflated grade.
In fourth grade math, the state tells us that 78% of students are proficient. But on the highly regarded National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test given in all 50 states, just 43% score “proficient.” In the fourth grade reading test, the state tells us that 68.6% are performing at grade level, as opposed to just 36% according to the NAEP.
The same performance gap holds for the eighth grade. While the federal test suggests that not even a third of students are proficient in reading, 32%, the state claims that nearly a half, 49.3% meet the standard. In math only 30% of eighth graders reach grade level on the NAEP, while the state tells us that 54% do.
Commissioner Mills, writing to the Regents nearly a year ago, tried to explain away this performance gap. “Given that NAEP and state tests, as well as the related standards, are prepared separately, it’s inevitable that national and state results will be different. In some states the difference is large, while it’s small in others. This presents an obvious question for the public and policy makers: which results are correct?”
Mr. Mills asserted that the State’s tests, resulting in among the widest gaps with the federal standard in the nation, are more accurate and goes on to give a list of reasons. These include the remarkable claim that “teachers and students perceive that stakes are high for performance on the New York tests and students are encouraged to do their best. There are no consequences to a school or a student from NAEP.” This is nonsense.
Tests are important. Education officials increasingly use them to make important public policy decisions. Just as we expect children not to copy answers from their neighbor’s paper, and teachers and principals not to alter test papers to make them look better, we must demand integrity from those at the state level who make up the tests, and the State Education Commissioner who is their boss. What has gone on in New York State is nothing less than systemic, institutional cheating.
Now is a good time to look at what was done in Massachusetts. Their education board raised standards, and aligned their tests with the federal yardstick. And there was some pain early on. But their strategy has paid off. Now Massachusetts posts the highest scores in the nation on the NAEP tests.
We need a State Education Commissioner who will put the interests of children first, even if it means that local educrats get some unpleasant news. We need a Commissioner who will emulate the Massachusetts model, one who will restore integrity to the Empire State’s compromised educational system, something Richard Mills never had the courage to do.