David Steiner Gets It

by Robert Pondiscio
July 14th, 2010

Keep an eye on New York State education commissioner David Steiner, who is gearing up to implement a long overdue reform: establishing a link between test scores and college readiness. 

Harvard’s Daniel Koretz, at Steiner’s urging, has been looking at the correlation between New York’s eighth-grade test scores and high school Regents exam scores. Notes the Buffalo News:  ”The conclusion: Students in New York State are moving through elementary, middle and high school with test scores they believe to be adequate, but once they get to college, they find they are not prepared.”  That’s not a complete shock given the boxcar numbers of college freshman who need remediation once they arrive on campus.  But the New York Post’s Yoav Gonen points out what will surely be the most repeated fact from Koretz’s forthcoming study: eighth-graders who score a 3 out of 4 on state math and reading tests have just a 52 percent chance of graduating high school, even though they’ve been told they’re on track.

Let that rattle around inside your head for a moment:  A child who is deemed proficient in 8th grade has a chance only slightly better than a coin toss of graduating high school just four years later.   “We’ve been calling that ‘proficient,’ ” state Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch told The Post’s editorial board. “We were giving out misleading information.”

Gee, ya think?

The study is to be released Monday, but anyone who has taught in New York in the last several years can’t be surprised.  For years, I saw 5th graders come into my Bronx classroom who were ostensibly on grade level yet demonstrated little command of basic arithmetic. That was plenty persuasive that all that glitters isn’t gold.

Steiner’s insistence that test scores should actually mean something is clearly going to rattle some cages, and prompt a long hard look at where school districts in New York have made real gains and where they haven’t.  Buffalo’s school superintendent blasted Steiner and his deputy John King last week for focusing on more rigorous tests.  ”I think they’re two people who don’t know what they’re doing,” James A. Williams told the Buffalo News. “A more rigorous test is not going to improve student achievement. It’s not going to improve the graduation rate. I think it’s ridiculous.”

I don’t follow Williams’ complaint.   By my read, Steiner isn’t talking about testing our way to proficiency.  He’s talking about how test scores should be indicative of real-world proficiency.  As I’ve argued in this space before, if we’re going to insist on viewing everything in education through the prism of test scores, those scores have to be meaningful and indicative of real-world proficiency.  Steiner, King and Tisch deserve all the credit in the world for taking this on.


  1. Can’t imagine his Honor, Mayor Bloomberg is going to like the idea of more rigorous tests. What will that do to the graduation rate in New York City and/or across the state?

    The contrived “feel good” tests that New York has recently adopted are coming home to roost. There are a number of other states who have been feeding their taxpayers and parents the same propaganda about how their schools and students are supposedly performing. All this in the name of making some bureaucrat somewhere in the state look good for alleged positive results from their schools.

    Do these people honestly believe they can deceive everyone? Shameful.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 14, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

  2. National math test scores continue to be disappointing. This poor trend persists in spite of new texts, standardized tests with attached implied threats, or laptops in the class. At some point, maybe we should admit that math, as it is taught currently and in the recent past, seems irrelevant to a large percentage of grade school kids.

    Why blame a sixth grade student or teacher trapped by meaningless lessons? Teachers are frustrated. Students check out.

    The missing element is reality. Instead of insisting that students learn another sixteen formulae, we need to involve them in tangible life projects. And the task must be interesting.

    Project-oriented math engages kids. It is fun. They have a reason to learn the math they may have ignored in the standard lecture format of a class room.

    Alan Cook

    Comment by Alan Cook — July 14, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

  3. New York is almost certainly not the only culprit — or the worst — in terms of lowering cut scores and dumbing down tests. But regardless, if we insist on keeping score via standardized tests, there can be no progress without transparency and candor. If Steiner, Tisch, et al are serious about this, and I think they are, this could make NY the center of the education reform world. All eyes will be on what they’re doing.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 14, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

  4. It is my understanding that the Regents exams have been significantly weakened to the point that many students who score well still need remediation in college. Given the push for all students to take them, instead of limiting them to the kids on a REAL college-prep track (the way they used to do, when high schools had multiple tracks), it’s hardly surprising.

    Comment by momof4 — July 14, 2010 @ 5:40 pm

  5. No, it’s not surprising. But it’s certainly refreshing.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 14, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

  6. My take is that the “feel good” Regents are a direct result of the “reform” that eliminated (or virtually eliminated) the distinction between the “local diploma” and the “Regents diploma.”

    Comment by Rachel — July 14, 2010 @ 8:04 pm

  7. [...] This is no surprise, writes Core Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio. For years, I saw 5th graders come into my Bronx classroom who were ostensibly on grade level yet demonstrated little command of basic arithmetic. [...]

    Pingback by ‘Proficient’ = 52% graduation rate « Joanne Jacobs — July 17, 2010 @ 8:26 am

  8. [...] report will not come as news to some teachers, said Robert Pondiscio in the Core Knowledge blog. He wrote, “For years, I saw fifth graders come [...]

    Pingback by Gotham Gazette - The Wonkster » Blog Archive » Dumbing Down Test Scores — July 20, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

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