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Passing Rates Keep Plummeting as States Race to the Top

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Race to the Top finalists announced on Tuesday is currently the most discussed event on the education agenda. The second round of the competition for $4,3 billion state award yielded positive results but also sparkled the new wave of controversy over the raise of state schools testing standards.

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Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington on Tuesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced 19 winners of the second round of the Race to the Top Program.

The finalists appeared to be Arizona, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina, with each receiving over 400 points in the 500-point evaluating scale.

While round 1 brought victory to only two States – Delaware and Tennesseethe significant increase in Round 2 winners shows their greater involvement in the reform process.

The $4,3 billion award winners – from 10 to 15 states, according to Mr. Duncan – will be announced in September. He stressed the final number will depend on the size of the states winning the most points.

The controversial program received warm responses from many experts, with such think tanks as Achieve Inc. and WestEd (education research groups) calling it viable and coherent. The supporters indicate the program spurs states’ competition for education reform. Since its inception, 23 states have passed reforms aimed at increase of charter schools and amending the teaching staff evaluation system.

“The [stimulus package] has unleashed an avalanche of pent-up educational reform activity at the state and at the local level,” Mr. Duncan said.

New York, for example, has more than doubled its number of charter schools and tied teacher evaluations to schools performance. Colorado passed a major overhaul of teacher tenure and evaluation rules, despite staunch union opposition. Louisiana pushed the law that stipulates more rigorous evaluation procedure for teachers.

However, the program is subject to fierce criticism as well. Critics point at its totally wrong timing when state education budgets cannot afford the long-term competition. They also worry that the program lacks strategic thinking and seeks to improve the K-12 system with dubious methods.

“Providing money for education basing upon the competition is a totally wrong move. Especially if this competition is based on methods which are anti-teacher and anti-student by their essence”, – said Matthew Barney, ProfEssays.com economic expert and Race to the Top consistent opponent.

The recent events show that critics are right. The race to the Top Program has brought new repercussions to one of its major applicants – New York.

As it is known, in order to qualify for the Race to the Top funds, states must agree to develop state standards aligned to the Common Core Standards. This move was tasked to reduce the overall downgrade of the state exams, but brought new controversy instead as more students started failing their tests after standards were raised.

As the problem unfolds, NY state education officials announced Wednesday that more than half of public school students in New York City failed their English exams this year, and only 54 percent of them passed in math.

“Now that we are facing the hard truth that not all of the gains were as advertised, we have to take a look at what we can do differently”, Merryl H. Tisch, the chancellor of the State Board of Regents, said.

The slump in passing rates has been seen statewide. This year 61 percent of state students were expected to pass a grade in math, as compared with 86 percent last year. The situation with English is even worse, with only 53 percent passing, compared with last year’s 77 percent.

Test standards were raised after continuous claims of them becoming too easy, with questions repeating from year to year. So this year, the state made them less predictable and increased the number of correct answers needed to pass the test. Last year, for example, a fourth grader had to get 37 out of 70 possible points on the math test to reach Level 3 (out of 4), or grade level. This year, a fourth grader needed to earn 51 out of 70 points to reach that level.

The worrying test results not only threaten to undermine the whole grading system but also raise questions over the efficiency of Obama-advocated program, particularly in terms of school evaluation system which ties test results to teachers’ performance and thus determines their pay and bonuses.

Meanwhile, it has already cast shadow over NY Administration achievements over the past years, with the mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein using the old results of the-then downgraded test standards to show state schools have improved.