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The test score rage: rhetoric versus reform 

Well, that gave everybody something to talk about, didn't it?

State education officials released school-district scores on standardized tests last week, and the news was awful. Only 31 percent of the state's students met or exceeded the "proficiency" standard for math. And only 31.1 percent of them met the English standard.

And among the large urban school districts, Rochester brought up the rear: only 5 percent of the district's students met the standard for math. Only 5.4 met the English standard.

City Council President Lovely Warren, who is running for mayor, held a press conference, deriding incumbent Tom Richards for accepting the endorsement of the Rochester teachers union. Warren tried to avoid blaming teachers ("It isn't teachers who are failing our children," she said), and instead attacked their union and its long-time president, Adam Urbanski, for, in her words, blocking "efforts to improve and reform."

Urbanski fired back, challenging Warren to "a public debate on the role of the union in educating children." (She declined.)

Education-reform activists lashed out at the test itself, and at standardized testing.

And in opinion pieces in the Democrat and Chronicle on Sunday, a variety of school board candidates attacked the tests, Superintendent Bolgen Vargas, the teacher's union, parent engagement, the new curriculum... you name it.

Look, folks: we already knew that we have a crisis in urban schools, not just in Rochester but in urban school districts throughout the nation. These latest test scores don't indicate that things have gotten worse. As State Education Commissioner John King said when he released the results, the state is simply using a different kind of test to measure what students have learned.

And not only are the tests different but so is the school curriculum. New York, like many other states, has decided that schools aren't teaching children what they need to know. So we have a new curriculum, which teachers themselves are still learning.

The good thing is that Rochester's stunning 5 percent statistics got everybody's attention. And the school district and its problems are certainly an essential topic for the current political campaigns. But despite all of the outrage last week, nobody was talking about doing the really hard things that we have to do. And until we do them, little will change.

For instance: I don't know how we let children get to third grade unable to read. Roc the Future, a two-year-old community effort to address that problem, has been slow to get off the ground.

And I don't hear anybody talking about ending the social promotion policy that passes children through grade after grade, headed toward high school with minimal reading and math skills.

Nobody will touch the issue of metropolitan schools, despite the evidence that poor children do worse in high-poverty schools.

And how shocking do the statistics have to get before we agree that the concentrated poverty of our inner-city neighborhoods has a profound effect on children? How do we expect children with few language skills and serious emotional or disciplinary problems to do well in school? The most important thing we can do to help them succeed is to make sure that they're ready for school when they start. That will take extensive support for parents and their children, from infancy on. That will take a lot of money. And nobody's coming up with it.

And we haven't even talked about teachers: how to train them well and pay them well (as opposed to yelling at them).

It's so easy to be shocked by test scores, so easy to single out small pieces of the problem, froth at the mouth about them, and point fingers. It's harder to pull together, agree on the complexity of the urban education problem, and commit the resources to make some progress.

The test scores we saw last week told us nothing new.

Neither, unfortunately, did the community's response.

"Despite all of the outrage last week, nobody was talking about doing the really hard things that we have to do."

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