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Our catastrophic public education system
New standardized tests give an awfully poor picture of New York City schools
New York Commissioner of Education John King, Jr. talks about the city's plummeting standardized test scores on Aug. 7.
New York Commissioner of Education John King, Jr. talks about the city's plummeting standardized test scores on Aug. 7. AP Photo/Richard Drew
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very once in a while, I come across a story that reads like it could have been prepared for publication in The Onion.

The New York Times' story on the catastrophically low standardized test results being reported out of New York City this week is just such a story. All of the elements are there. Passage rates are so low that one cannot help but think they must be fake. And then they're followed by comically absurd reactions from parents and teachers.

Unfortunately, this story is not a joke. Instead, it reveals that our education system is failing millions and millions of young people, and that adults, as much as anyone, are to blame for the failures.

The headline sums up part of the problem: "Under new standards, students see sharp decline in test scores." The headline is true as far as it goes, but reading that headline, one might be falsely led to believe that the new test standards are the problem, as opposed to our young people's alarmingly low scores. Under the new standards, the New York State Department of Education reports that among third-through-eighth-graders measured in New York City, 26 percent of students passed English, and 30 percent passed in math.

Notice I emphasized the word passed above, because that is the key word. For all of the talk of how the decline is a product of the new, more rigorous testing standards, which "emphasize deep analysis and creative problem-solving," we really should be focused on the word pass, because getting a passing score is hardly something to write home about.

The passage rate among the same group under the previous standard last year was closer to 50 percent in both subjects... as if having half of our kids not failing to keep up with the utterly unremarkable standard might have been acceptable. At best, the new statistics might be read as saying that we are only completely failing seven out of 10 of our young people.

The failure numbers are, in some sense, less revealing than what we learn about the adults teaching these students. One sentence sums it up: "Some educators were taken aback by the steep decline and said they worried the figures would rattle the confidence of students and teachers."

Rattle the confidence of the students and the teachers? Oh. Yes. That's definitely what we should be worried about right now, particularly the teachers' confidence. Maybe if we tell everyone they are doing a bang-up job, the parents and teachers will sleep more soundly at night and our children will magically learn the basic skills they need to succeed in our modern economy.

I have no doubt about the loyalty and the meaningful effort our educators put in every day. But, with all due respect, the notion that we should care about their confidence is lunacy. Numbers can lie, but only on the margins. Hard work, charisma, creativity… these are attributes that go a long way. But they are useless without the basic foundation of reading and math skills that these tests are designed to measure.

Make no mistake. Our system of public education is completely and totally broken. And every change, whether we are talking about school vouchers (yes, even those, teachers unions), performance incentives (that push success and punish failure among our educators), 10-hour schooldays, the elimination of summer breaks... every single tool we can bring to give young people a chance to succeed, none of it should be off the table.

This is a fight for the soul of America, and we must do better for our young people, no matter how great the disruption to the parents and teachers who have come to expect the system to function a certain way. We owe it to our young people. We cannot and must not lose this fight.

Jeb Golinkin is a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law and writes about U.S. politics and policy for TheWeek.com. From 2008 to 2011, he served as an editor and reporter for Frum Forum/New Majority. Email him at jgolinkin@gmail.com.

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