There's so much noise around school testing this year that one would think "high-stakes" and "standardized" were New York's newest cuss words.
The noise has been so distracting that it took me quite a while to understand what's really been going on in classrooms. As a sometimes critic of how the United States stacks up for education, I'm encouraged by the changes.
It took a visit to Newsday by New York's top education officials for me to get what was really going on. I'm embarrassed to admit this, since I consider myself an involved mother of two teenagers. I attend all the parent-teacher nights, meet or talk with guidance counselors several times a year, communicate with my kids' teachers, check eboards and volunteer in the school. So, I was aware of something called the Common Core - usually mentioned by teachers with an eye roll. But I didn't have much of an idea of what it meant until seven months into the school year.
Last week, in fact.
I had thought that the Common Core was a new curriculum fad, one of the many waves to roll through over the past 30 years. Instead, it's a way of training students to attack problems and think analytically.
Sure, I had noticed that my daughters were doing different homework. Instead of the floppy standards of prior composition, they were having to write introductions, provide evidence and craft conclusions - in subjects from social studies to science, not just in English class. In math, they were required to show the steps they took to get their answers.
Standardized tests began this week, and some parents are boycotting them, in part because they're making kids so anxious. But the new standards have been making my kids (mildly) anxious all school year. So, when I finally understood the Common Core myself, and its goals, I sat down with them and explained it.
My eighth-grader seemed relieved to finally understand why this year had seemed so much harder.
"That would explain the lower grades," my 10th-grader mused about her academic performance this past year. But in the next breath, she said, "Well, I guess I'll be better prepared for college."
Then she pulled up a YouTube video from HBO's "The Newsroom," in which actor Jeff Daniels rants about how great America used to be. "We aspired to intelligence," he said, "we didn't belittle it." He rattled off statistics on how poorly we compare to other countries in education.
Note to the nation's parents: We're not doing our kids any favors when we fail to raise education standards. And they know it.
State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. notes that only 75 percent of the state's students graduate high school. Only 35 percent of ninth-graders graduate in four years ready for college coursework. The rest are taking remedial classes in college - high school classes that they and their parents get to pay for. Again.
The public school system, from King on down to the teachers, has done a poor job of explaining the Common Core. Too much of the focus has been that teachers will be evaluated, in part, on students' test results.
But I wonder, if teachers' job ratings weren't on the line, would they take the Common Core so seriously? Or would it become another of the fads that seem to wash in and out of our country's classrooms like ocean tides?
Along with New York, 45 states, the District of Columbia, four U.S. territories and the Department of Defense schools have adopted Common Core standards. Will this new national standard raise the fortunes of America's future graduates? Not without some anxiety.
But let's not allow that to distract us from a worthy effort.
This essay was first published in Newsday.