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April 19, 2013

Area educators: New N.Y. tests much tougher

By Mark Boshnack
The Daily Star

---- — A shift in state standardized testing began this week in area schools. Administration for English Language Arts tests for students in grades 3 through 8 ran Tuesday through Thursday, and the same schedule will be used for math tests next week.

The tests are the first state tests based on the common core standard curriculum that New York is now sharing with most states.

While area school officials said the tests may have been harder that previous exams, most said they seemed to go well. The tests won’t affect student averages, but the scores will be used to determine whether individual students are meeting the standards or need additional help. They will also be part of teacher assessments, officials said.

According to state Education Department officials, families and teachers should be prepared to see lower scores as a result of the the transition to the new standards.

Delaware Academy Central School Superintendent Jason Thomson said standardized tests play an important role in providing schools a way to measure where students stand. The tests are part of “a new system that is evolving,” he said.

At first glance, it’s more difficult that in the past, he said, and some students didn’t finish. However, Delaware Academy worked with several other school districts to prepare with the best available test information.

“We’ve been preparing for almost two years,” using the information to mirror what to expect in our local tests, he said, adding that work by staff and administrators was important in the smooth performance.

“The results will tell us what has worked” and give teachers a barometer on individual students to improve in the future, he said. “I have not heard of any problem. I’m hopeful we’ll perform well, but we’ll use the information to continue to improve.”

Sidney Superintendent Bill Christensen said the increased demands of the tests weren’t a problem. But because the tests were so different than previous state exams, the scores shouldn’t be expected to correlate with those tests. While he didn’t know what the scoring will be, he said he wouldn’t be surprised to see proficiency levels go down.

The biggest complaint he heard was the lack of time allowed, he said. One test he saw administered to fifth graders involved them filling out 32 multiple choice questions, after reading nine to 11 pages and writing three essays.

“We want to test student knowledge, not their stamina,” he said.

According to an email made available from New York State Council of School Superintendents Deputy Director Robert Lowery, a common report from those commenting on the tests was that many students did not have enough time to complete the tests and became frustrated.

Generally, “we hear that reading passages were fair and reasonable, but questions were difficult, even tricky,” Lowery said. Some superintendents speculated the state Education Department “miscalculated” the amount of time required for some grade levels, he said.

Morris Central School Superintendent Matthew Sheldon said that the focus on the common core is to read for deeper meaning. The first day, some third graders did that — and ran out of time. On Wednesday, most of the students completed.

In general, he said, teachers he spoke with said the test was fair. The difficulty was elevated but students weren’t frustrated, he said.

Unadilla Valley Central School Superintendent Robert Mackey said students were more focused than usual when taking the standardized testing. He said he didn’t know what that will mean for the final scores, but they took the test seriously — and seemed confident.

“This may have been a difficult, challenging test, but students should have the skills to do well,” he said.

He attributes that to proper use of time and the skills teachers have worked hard to instill.

When used properly, standardized tests are a tool schools can use to focus on what is being learned and what needs to be changed, he said.