The High-Stakes Testing Trap

Rising Standards, Rising Dropouts

The best schools are not necessarily those that score highest, but rather those that achieve the greatest improvement of their individual students. Only if we look at the schools by this measure can we evaluate the efficiency of the curriculum and teaching methods they employ. —Andrew Wolf, The New York Sun, October 4–6

The performance of the city's schools will determine whether a chasm separates a privileged elite from masses of underemployed and unemployed.Richard Parsons, CEO, AOL Time Warner, The New York Times, December 30, 2001


On January 10, 2001, New York State Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse predicted what a new city schools chancellor would be facing:

"The majority of the city's public school students leave high school unprepared for more than low-paying work, unprepared for college, and unprepared for the duties placed upon them by a democratic society. The schools have broken a covenant with students and with society."

DeGrasse ruled in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York that the state, in its inequitable financing of the school system, was violating the state constitution's requirement of a sound basic education. That decision was overruled by the Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court, to the public pleasure of Governor Pataki. Sometime next year, the Court of Appeals, our highest court, will decide whether Justice DeGrasse was whistling in the wind.

In March of this year, Raymond Domanico of the Industrial Areas Foundation (founded by legendary grassroots organizer Saul Alinsky) issued State of the New York City Public Schools 2002, published by the Manhattan Institute. Among the statistics: "Only 44 percent of black students, and only 39 percent of Hispanic students, complete high school within four years." (Actually, the Hispanic percentage is 41.3.)

The great majority of this city's public school students are either black (34.8 percent) or Hispanic (37.8 percent).

There is no question that the new chancellor, Joel Klein, is utterly committed to making the system work; but he, like more and more students, is falling into the high-stakes testing trap. On September 25, in a front-page story, The New York Times reported: "Raising test scores should be the paramount goal of city educators, Mr. Klein said, because they are the only uniform way of measuring student performance."

But students are not uniform, and neither are teachers.

Klein also told The New York Sun (September 25) that he wasn't worried about teachers' "teaching to the test. . . . It is the way our system is measured. This is a system of accountability and we need to conform our efforts."

On September 24, Klein's choice for deputy chancellor of instruction, Diana Lam, was quoted in the Daily News as saying that the new administration's goal was to give every child an "excellent" education, with every student meeting state and city standards on reading and math tests.

As more and more students fail these high-stakes tests in the lower grades, and are nonetheless "socially" promoted in large numbers to fail further high-stakes tests, the dropout rates keep rising. According the New York City Department of Education's Assessment and Accountability office, of the students who have been graduated in four years, these are the recent dropout percentages: 1998: 15.6; 1999: 17.5; 2000: 19.3; 2001: 20.4.

That last figure means 13,392 students. Of students who, for various reasons did not graduate in four years but are still tracked in the system, the dropout rate at the end of seven years is 30 percent.

Meanwhile, as The New York Times reported on October 2, "the academic standards [the state] imposes on students continue to climb. Seniors hoping to graduate next spring will have to pass five state Regents exams, not four. The year after that, they will have to pass three of the exams with a score of 65, instead of 55. By 2005, all five exams will have a passing grade of 65, even though more than 20 percent of seniors fell short of that benchmark in 2001, the last year for which data is available."

First of all, is Joel Klein going to finally end social promotion, which places more and more students in quicksand? Second, with looming state and city budget crises, where is the money coming from to bring students up to these higher promotion standards? And what are his detailed plans for intensive system-wide remedial classes that will have to be small to be effective? And are there enough teachers with the skills to make up for all the other teachers in the system who failed these students below?

Klein, however, is already making a significant mistake by deciding to give superintendents bonuses of up to $40,000 based on improved test scores in their districts. Before that, principals have been getting $15,000 bonuses for higher test scores in their schools. But what of those many kids who will still fail the tests? The only bonuses should be for individual teachers who actually make a difference. The United Federation of Teachers opposes this.

In the October 14 New York Post, Carl Campanile and Leah Haines report on 12 drastically failing schools in the State Education Department's ominous list of Schools Under Registration Review.

Among them: Junior High School 258 in Bedford-Stuyvesant: "a staggering 99 percent of eighth-graders flunked the math exam and 92 percent flunked the English test." And PS 92 in Harlem: "92 percent of students failed to meet math standards."

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