New York City officials are on the defensive today after test scores from public schools plummeted under new standards for achievement.  The city adopted the controversial Common Core curriculum and testing, and NYC was expected to be a test case for its implementation.  After going from bad to worse on achievement, though, parents may demand even more change:

The number of New York students passing state reading and math exams dropped drastically this year, education officials reported on Wednesday, unsettling parents, principals and teachers and posing new challenges to a national effort to toughen academic standards.

New York City, 26 percent of students in third through eighth grade passed the tests in English, and 30 percent passed in math, according to the New York State Education Department.

The exams were some of the first in the nation to be aligned with a more rigorous set of standards known as the Common Core, which emphasize deep analysis and creative problem-solving over short answers and memorization. Last year, under an easier test, 47 percent of city students passed in English, and 60 percent in math.

City and state officials spent months trying to steel the public for the grim figures.

But when the results were released, many educators responded with shock that their students measured up so poorly against the new yardsticks of achievement.

Common Core has been pushed by the Obama administration as one of the central programs in its policy, and the White House has had a lot of success in getting states to adopt it.  Only five states so far have yet to embrace Common Core, with New York and Kentucky two of the earliest states to get on board.  Kentucky took its first tests last year under the new curriculum, and experienced a similar drop in performance:

Kentucky’s higher academic standards took an expected toll on statewide reading and math proficiency rates when the state released its first results under its new “Unbridled Learning” testing system Friday.

State data showed that 48 percent of elementary students, 47 percent of middle-schoolers and 52 percent of high school students scored proficient or better in reading. By contrast, the rates last year were 76, 70 and 66 percent, respectively.

Math proficiency came in at 40 percent at the elementary school level, 41 percent at middle schools and 40 percent at high schools, figures that were also lower than last year, according to the Kentucky Department of Education data.

The question here is what has been measured in the past and now.  One can argue that the introduction of Common Core hurt achievement, or that previous measurements under other curricula produced test scores that overestimated proficiency.  Part of the problem in resolving the question will be the more subjective nature of the complex Common Core test, which might distort the results.  But the common link between the two is that under any measure, public schools are failing at educating students to proficiency in basic subject matter such as language and math.

The Week’s Jeb Golinkin underscores that consistent result:

The passage rate among the same group under the previous standard last year was closer to 50 percent in both subjects… as if having half of our kids not failing to keep up with the utterly unremarkable standard might have been acceptable. At best, the new statistics might be read as saying that we are only completely failing seven out of 10 of our young people.

The failure numbers are, in some sense, less revealing than what we learn about the adults teaching these students. One sentence sums it up: “Some educators were taken aback by the steep decline and said they worried the figures would rattle the confidence of students and teachers.”

Rattle the confidence of the students and the teachers? Oh. Yes. That’s definitely what we should be worried about right now, particularly the teachers’ confidence. Maybe if we tell everyone they are doing a bang-up job, the parents and teachers will sleep more soundly at night and our children will magically learn the basic skills they need to succeed in our modern economy.

I have no doubt about the loyalty and the meaningful effort our educators put in every day. But, with all due respect, the notion that we should care about their confidence is lunacy. Numbers can lie, but only on the margins. Hard work, charisma, creativity… these are attributes that go a long way. But they are useless without the basic foundation of reading and math skills that these tests are designed to measure.

Make no mistake. Our system of public education is completely and totally broken. And every change, whether we are talking about school vouchers (yes, even those, teachers unions), performance incentives (that push success and punish failure among our educators), 10-hour schooldays, the elimination of summer breaks… every single tool we can bring to give young people a chance to succeed, none of it should be off the table.

I haven’t immersed myself in the debate over Common Core; the Boss Emeritus has, and continues to push against its use, criticizing leaders in both parties for backing it.  So far, the results look singularly unimpressive.  Even if this first year of testing under the new curriculum succeeded in establishing a more honest assessment of actual performance by public schools — and even that much hasn’t been established yet — Jeb’s point is even more germane.  These schools need to bring students to proficient level now, not ten years down the road.  How many children will lose out while this ramps up to speed, assuming it ever does?  Nothing from the results in New York or Kentucky suggest that this is moving the ball forward at all.

Instead, they prove that federal control over education isn’t helping our children, and neither are the monopolies on primary education enjoyed by public-school systems.  It’s long past time to allow parents to exercise choice with their education funding and create competition for students among schools that will have an incentive to educate children rather than please unions and politicians.