Is preparing students to be “caring adults” a luxury only the toniest of suburbs can applaud?

“Our schools have never been about passing standardized tests,” said NY State Regent Judith Johnson this past Thursday, June 2nd at the Scarsdale Public Library. Calling that goal “too narrow,” Johnson asserted, “The goal of schools is to prepare students to be effective citizens and caring adults.”

That sort of pablum, preserved in this week’s edition of a  Scarsdale local paper,  probably goes down easy in a bucolic suburb where the median family income is $250,001 per year and the average home price is $950,000. But those of us not rich enough to live in wealthy Westchester suburbs most likely regard the primary mission of  public schools as student academic proficiency, not civics lessons.

And therein lies the offense of those who decry standardized tests linked to college and career-ready standards, like the loud frothing of the Long Island-based group New York State Allies for Public Education, prime advocates (along with the New York State teachers union) for elimination of accountability, which spends its money hosting events like “Opt Out, Shop Out” at Roosevelt Field Mall.

It’s one matter to hear Regent Johnson, who received a standing ovation at this recent meeting of the Scarsdale Forum, eschew high expectations and accountability to families who can afford to live in Scarsdale or Great Neck. It’s another matter entirely for families who lack that access because they can’t afford mortgages that come bundled with quartz countertops and high-achieving schools.

A member of the New York State Board of Regents should know better than to dichotomize student proficiency and citizenship.  But apparently not for this overseer of public education who channels Chancellor Betty Rosa’s open disdain for standardized tests.

Regent Johnson might also want to take a look at New York State’s college remediation rates—the percentages of students who have to take non-credit-bearing courses in college because they were inadequately prepared for college-level work. It’s actually quite high, even for suburban students. A 2013 report from The Long Island Regional Advisory Council on Higher Education reveals this data:

  • 44 percent of students from Nassau County are unprepared for college-level courses.
  • 52 percent of students from Suffolk County are unprepared for college-level courses.
  • At Suffolk County Community College, the percentage of new students needing remediation rose from 48.7 percent in fall 2002 to 61.3 percent in 2015. The College also compiled data showing that the more remedial courses students take, the worse their chances of graduating, reinforcing the finding of this national remediation report.
  • At Nassau Community College, the percentage of students attending college for the first time who needed remedial courses was more than 70 percent in recent years.
  • 75 percent of 15-year-olds from Shanghai with college-educated parents are proficient in math–compared to 50 percent of the same group in Canada and 42 percent in the United States.

This report, written under the direction of John King, then N.Y.’s Commissioner of Education and now President Obama’s Education Secretary, created a new section on school performance reports called  “Where Are They Now” (starting on page 23). This section was intended to reveal college outcomes, i.e., whether full-time college students were able to complete college within 6 years. A year later that section was scrapped by N.Y.C. Chancellor Carmen Farina, in one of her telltale departures from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s and Chancellor Joel Klein’s  focus on accountability.

Chalkbeat’s coverage notes:

Of 21,000 [New York] city students who graduated high school and enrolled in a two-year or four-year college in the fall of 2006, just 36 percent of them received a degree four years later, according to the Research Alliance at New York University.

Regent Johnson’s speech included a pointed jab at the governor’s efforts to include student achievement scores in teacher evaluation ratings:

Johnson referenced the “Executive Office’s punitive approach” to teacher evaluation, which, she said, was based on a “flawed theory of action” that “student achievement improves if you fire teachers.”

No one wants to fire good teachers. No one (I know of, at least) believes that character education shouldn’t be taught in schools. But students, perhaps even in Scarsdale, should graduate high school with the skills and knowledge to successfully transition to adulthood.

That’s going to take more than a civics lesson.

This post originally appeared on the blog NJ Left Behind.

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Laura Waters
Laura was weaned on education and equity issues because her mom was a social worker and her dad was a social studies teacher in New York City public schools. She can no more get this passion out of her blood than she can her New York accent, even though she has lived in Central Jersey now for over 20 years. She and her husband have four children, and her youngest has multiple disabilities. Laura has been on her local school board for 12 years. She keeps education leaders on their toes at NJ Left Behind.

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