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In our opinion: Test scores

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 14 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Setting higher expectations is the precise objective, and recent testing in states that are early adapters of Common Core is demonstrating just how important that objective is.

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States that have adopted the Common Core education standards are now finding that students measured under the new and higher bar are far less proficient in English and math skills than previous testing indicated. This should come as no surprise, and it offers no reason to rethink use of the same standards in other states.

In fact, quite the opposite. Setting higher expectations is the precise objective, and recent testing in states that are early adapters of Common Core is demonstrating just how important that objective is. In New York, for example, under Common Core testing, 26 percent of students in third through eighth grade passed tests in English, and 30 percent passed in math; that's compared to pass rates of 33 percent and 40 percent, respectively, under easier testing last year.

The results are unsettling to parents and educators, and have prompted some critics of Common Core to argue the new standards are setting schools up to fail. But a more reasonable view suggests the standards are setting schools up to succeed by giving them a more accurate baseline on where students are when it comes to their aptitude in vital skills necessary in a modern economy.

As U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan put it, "We're telling the truth for the first time." It is an admission that previous testing methods offered a skewed perspective on achievement. "That's the brutal truth, that's the reality," the secretary said. "We have to stop lying to students and families, we have to be very, very honest and move from there."

Moving from there, however, will be more difficult as a result of the emerging test scores, which, at the very least, provide a public relations challenge for Common Core advocates. Critics will point to the scores to reinforce their argument that the new standards overemphasize testing and cast public education in a lesser light, lowering confidence in public schools.

In Utah, the state school board has vigorously advocated for adopting the Common Core, yet skepticism remains in some legislative and policy circles. Some see it as a swipe of the federal government's heavy hand and a big footing of the state's prerogative to manage its own schools. Others see hints of an effort to impose an ideological agenda on curriculum. The standards emanate from a collaborative effort led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to bring uniformity to aspirations of educational excellence. They do not dictate method or curriculum, but set basic expectations of what learning students should receive in math and English courses to be prepared for careers and college education.

Testing in New York and elsewhere is showing the new standards are obviously more rigorous than the old. Does that make them unreasonable? Not unless you believe that achievement should be measured on the basis of the lowest common denominator.

Yes, it hurts to see test scores falling so far below what schools have become accustomed to, but no one has suggested our future educational and economic competitiveness won't come without some pain. The success of Common Core will be determined not by the first round of testing, but as we move forward, in hope of seeing those proficiency levels rise beyond what we have settled for in the past.

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