With anxiety mounting before the release on Wednesday of results of New York's tougher new math and reading tests, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged parents and educators to put the scores into context by seeing them as a new "baseline" from which to build.
In a conference call with New York State Education Commissioner John King, Duncan said New York is leading the country by adopting more challenging math and reading standards known as the Common Core. He said many states had fooled people into believing students were doing better than they really were by using tests that were too easy.
"What's the goal here? Is the goal to look good on paper or to help students be successful?" he asked. "I think the only way you improve is to tell the truth, and sometimes that's a brutal truth, but to have a very honest conversation and then to move from there."
He added, "There's simply too much at stake to retreat," noting the need for students to participate in democracy, and for the U.S. to compete with other nations.
Forty-five states and the District of Columbia signed on to the new standards. King said the tests were designed to reflect their demands.
"They required students to write more and to think more, to read more challenging texts, to apply their math problem-solving skills. And that is because those are the very skills that they need to develop in order to succeed in college and careers," he said.
In 2012 Kentucky was the first state to use Common Core tests. The percentage of students considered proficient was nearly cut in half.
Educators are bracing for similar results in New York. Even though the results will not be released publicly until Wednesday, some teachers and others close to the schools have said it appears the city was accurate when it estimated a steep drop in proficiency, by as much as 30 percentage points. Last year, about 50 percent of city students were proficient on their state elementary and middle school English tests, and 60 percent were proficient in math.
Many teachers and principals have complained that the system was stacked against them because the state brought in new tests before choosing new curricula. The president of the American Federation of Teachers has called on states to adopt a moratorium on Common Core tests until teachers are better prepared.
But Commissioner King said it made no sense for the state to keep the old exams while encouraging teachers to begin using Common Core standards. And Duncan agreed.
"As a country we've had low standards for decades, so to act like we should stay at low standards longer is frankly nonsensical to me. So it is the right thing to move forward, it takes courage."
The Bloomberg administration, which has made education one of its top priorities, took a defensive posture before the test scores were publicized. Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott released a timeline of the Department of Education's progress since 2010 in implementing the new standards, which included thousands of training opportunities for teachers and making materials available online. The city chose new curricula in February and books are now beginning to arrive in the schools.
On Tuesday, Walcott said he's been warning New Yorkers for the past year that he expects to see a "pretty significant" drop in scores. He said students would benefit from the state's decision to raise the bar.
"I want to be very clear to the parents it doesn't mean that your child is doing worse," he said, of the expected drop in scores. "It just means that your child is now being measured to a higher standard and our goals are to make sure the child reaches that higher standard."
The city said parents can expect to see their child's test scores by the end of August.
But many teachers have said the training was not thorough enough to prepare them or their students for the new exams. The English tests were considered especially difficult. The United Federation of Teachers criticized the mayor late last week, before the scores had even been released, prompting Walcott to accuse the union of playing politics.
On Tuesday, some of the Democratic mayoral candidates chimed in by claiming a drop in scores would provide evidence that the Bloomberg administration did not make as much progress in education as it frequently claims.
"Unfortunately, our students haven't been learning the tools they need to succeed," said former city comptroller Bill Thompson. "Our teachers haven't been allowed to teach and teach content. They've been having to drill our students in test prep."
John Liu, the current comptroller, said the "reportedly dismal results on the new state tests sent a clear message: Mayor Bloomberg and his Tweed cronies have been cooking the books on student test scores for 12 years."
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, meanwhile, called for more early literacy programs and a "Parent University" to engage families with their local schools. She also called for putting less emphasis on high stakes tests.
With reporting by Jeannie Choi