BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - New York, the second state to test students under new, rigorous standards adopted across the country, said Wednesday that less than a third were proficient in math and English, a steep drop from previous years that officials warned was due more to the higher bar than lower performance.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and others did their best to calm edgy New York parents and tell others to brace for more drops as 46 states adjust to the tougher Common Core learning standards that require more writing, critical thinking and problem-solving.
"New York City has set a bar for a challenge, and moving into challenge and embracing challenge," said Merryl Tisch, head of the state's education policymaking Board of Regents. "It takes a lot of courage to stand up and do the right thing even though sometimes the numbers and results that you report bring about a whole new set of questions."
New York state's results showed 31 percent of students in grades three through eight met or exceeded math and English proficiency standards on tests given over six days in April. Last year, 55 percent of students were considered proficient in English and 65 percent in math.
In New York City, the nation's largest school system with 1.1 million students, 26 percent of third- through eighth-graders were proficient in English and 30 percent in math. That's a drop from 47 percent in English and 60 percent in math a year ago.
A similar drop of about 30 percent in scores was seen in Kentucky, the first state to test under the Common Core standards, which were only rolled out widely this year to bring uniformity to the hodgepodge of educational goals that had varied greatly from state to state. The federal government was not involved in the state-led effort to develop them but has encouraged the project as a way to better prepare students for college and careers.
"We're raising the bar for the K-12 schools in this country. This will be a hard transition but it's really important for kids," said Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. "States should recognize that it's not a terrible thing to have this adjustment and that we should begin seeing growth."
The tests themselves reflected the emphasis on critical thinking. Students had to write more after analyzing complex tests and in math, tackle multi-step problems and spell out their logic in written responses.
"This is more necessary than ever before, as the standards required to earn a living and to compete in the global technological world keep going up," said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who wrested control of the city's schools more than a decade ago and has made boosting student performance a key goal of his administration.
New York state Education Commissioner John King Jr. echoed the idea that the 2013 results were not a surprise. He said they should only be viewed as a baseline and would not be used to label any new districts or schools as failing.
Individual student scores won't be released for weeks. Student growth on the tests is now a universal factor in teacher and principal evaluations that New York requires from each of its 700 districts.
King stressed, however, that they should only be part of any decision to hold back students.
That did little to calm Elzora Cleveland, who was among two dozen parents and education activists protesting high-stakes testing outside the New York City Education Department.
Cleveland said she is not sure whether she will show her daughter her scores if they are low.
"I don't want my child to feel like, "Do I really belong here? I didn't really do that well coming out of middle school,"' she said. "It hurts my heart to think that I need to tell my child, "You did good. You did OK. But according to the standards, you actually don't make the cut."'
The state decided to test on the standards during the first year they were being taught, even as districts, teachers and parents complained they had been rolled out unevenly. The scores reflect the inadequate time some teachers had to prepare, New York State School Boards Association President Timothy Kremer said.
The scores serve "as a reminder that standardized testing has limitations and that results must be used thoughtfully, judiciously and in context for students and teachers," said New York State United Teachers President Richard Iannuzzi.
Tisch was disheartened by a persistent achievement gap: 16 percent of African-American students and 18 percent of Hispanic students met English standards, compared with 40 percent of white students and 50 percent of Asian students. In math, 15 percent of black students and 18 percent of Hispanic students met learning standards, compared with 38 percent of white students and 60 percent of Asian students.
Among students with disabilities, 5 percent achieved the English standard and 7 percent met the math target.
There was also a huge difference among most of the state's urban school districts, compared with districts statewide. In Rochester, 5 percent of students met or exceeded math and English standards, while 11.5 percent of Buffalo students met English standards and 10 percent reached the milestone in math. In Syracuse, 9 percent were proficient in English and 7 percent in math. In Yonkers, 16 percent were proficient in English and 14.5 percent in math.