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State Education Commissioner urges districts to stay the course on Common Core

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WATERTOWN - Low scores on more rigorous assessment tests are all the more reason to stay the course with the new Common Core, according to New York state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr.

“It’s clear that educators in the state have risen to the challenges of higher standards in the past and will be able to rise to the challenges of higher standards now,” Mr. King said Thursday night after fielding questions from members of the Jefferson-Lewis School Boards Association at the Hilton Garden Inn in Watertown.

More than 70 percent of north country students from third to eighth grade were not proficient in math or English language arts, according to tests given in the spring.

But that will change as the new curriculum is rolled out throughout the state, Mr. King reassured a packed conference room of board members, faculty and staff from schools in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence County. The event was the first time in decades that a state education commissioner came to Watertown.

Just as teachers, parents and students met the more stringent graduation requirements introduced for the 2008-2012 cohort of high schoolers, so will they meet the challenge of the Common Core, Mr. King said.

“Scores from 2013 are the new baseline,” he explained.

Forty-five states, the District of Columbia, four U.S. territories and Department of Defense schools all have adopted the curriculum, according to the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Teachers began teaching toward the Common Core last fall.

New York’s four-year high school graduation rate is 74 percent for all students, but only 35 percent of students have the level of skills necessary to enroll and succeed in credit-bearing college courses, Mr. King said.

A majority of community college students are required to take remedial courses, effectively repeating high school courses at college prices, the commissioner said.

Mr. King, who oversees the state’s public elementary and secondary schools, told members of the School Boards Association that the new program of study would better prepare students to graduate from college or be ready to start careers after finishing high school.

But the new standards have also attracted several critics, including Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River.

Mr. Blankenbush has joined with 25 other state lawmakers in supporting a bill to break ties with the Common Core initiative, citing increased costs and confusion and reduced instructional time.

The Alliance for Quality Education issued a statement after scores were released asserting that they reflected income and opportunity gaps between wealthy districts, which performed relatively well, and high- and average-need schools, which did not.

The alliance called for a one-year moratorium on the “high stakes consequences” that would penalize schools, principals and teachers based on the test scores.

One of the program’s critics, though from a much gentler angle, would appear to be one of Mr. King’s two daughters.

“My math homework is taking me a long time, and it’s your fault,” Mr. King said she told him during a recent conversation.

But remaining steadfast in the implementation of the curriculum, and the homework that comes with it, will be key to making it work, according to Mr. King.

Members of the audience were clearly concerned about financing the training and technological advances called for by the initiative in an environment where many districts are forced to cut staff and other programs.

Mr. King said one of the biggest challenges in Albany is shifting focus from single year budget issues to larger structural issues. He told attendees that while districts will have to meet higher standards with fewer resources than they had before the 2008 financial crisis, they may see spending increase as lawmakers head into an election year.

He also said that positioning districts to share resources, especially where advanced placement courses are concerned, would become increasingly important.

As commissioner, Mr. King serves more than 7,000 public and independent elementary and secondary schools and hundreds of other educational institutions, according to the state Education Department website.

Mr. King stopped by schools in Copenhagen and Watertown before the School Boards Association meeting.

He was the first state education commissioner to visit this area in at least 30 years, according to Jack J. Boak Jr., superintendent of the Jefferson Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

The Board of Regents, which sets policy for the state Education Department, adopted the Common Core state standards in 2010. Assessments of English and math skills were conducted in 2013, and the rollout of Common Core Regents exams is scheduled to take place next year, with the class of 2017 required to pass them for graduation.

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