Testing to Create Dropouts?

Playing the Numbers Game for Kids' Futures

Anthony Alvarado was a New York City schools chancellor who knew a lot about how to motivate a student to learn how to learn so that it becomes a lifelong adventure. During his tenure, I visited Alvarado's office at the old Board of Education Livingston Street building in Brooklyn. The citywide reading scores had just come in, and there had been a significant rise.

But Tony seemed down, and I asked him why. "When," he said, "do you teach them how to think?" He knew the false positives of collective high test scores in a school or district or in the system. As Andrew Wolf wrote in The New York Sun (October 4-6, 2002): "The best schools are not necessarily those that score highest, but rather those that achieve the greatest improvement of their individual students."

Wolf continued: "Only if we look at the schools by this measure can we evaluate the efficacy of the curriculum and teaching methods they employ."

Franklin K. Lane High School: lost dreams
photo: Melissa Regan
Franklin K. Lane High School: lost dreams

In the October 25, 2002, Voice, I wrote about disturbing early signs of educational dysfunction in the new chancellor, Joel Klein. In a September 25 front-page story in The New York Times, Klein had been quoted as saying briskly: "Raising test scores should be the paramount goal of city educators." That alone was an ominous augury for the future, but then Klein actually said that he had no objections to 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."

It was then that Mayor Bloomberg, had he known anything about education, would have realized that his choice for chancellor could well deny him re-election because of the even worse state the city schools would be in by that time.

In The New York Times' invaluable series (July 31 and August 1) on the many thousands of public school students being pushed out of school because their test scores would reflect poorly on principals and superintendents, Tamar Lewin and Jennifer Medina omitted Klein's specific contribution to the growing number of push-outs.

Writing in the October 25 Voice ("The High-Stakes Testing Trap"), I noted that Klein was "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 [with Klein's support] principals have been getting $15,000 bonuses for higher test scores in their schools. But what of the 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." (Rudy Giuliani had started the bonuses.)

Of course, the high-stakes-tests pressures on principals and superintendents began before Joel Klein joined the clueless cheerleaders of that obsession. New York State's commissioner of education, Richard Mills, is a leading perpetrator of dropouts by this method, as is George W. Bush, whose "No Child Left Behind" legislation, based on repeated collective testing, will in fact leave behind many children for whom college will be merely a mirage.

In the series on New York City push-outs in the Times, Don Freeman, who retired last year as principal of Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx, said something Joel Klein should have heard before he assumed he was knowledgeable enough to run the city's school system:

"Ten years ago you could focus on the kids. The pressures were not the same, and you could take some risks. Now you're supposed to focus on the numbers."

Now, finally acknowledging how many students have been told that, in essence, they're too dumb to stay in school, Klein has told principals:

"It is a disservice to students and ourselves . . . to rely on shortcuts or play numbers games in order to make things look better than they really are." He says he is now monitoring that "disservice." With what punishment for the perpetrators?

But Klein has shown no indication that he is recovering from his addiction to high-stakes tests. At least he owes the parents of the disappeared students an honest report on how many youngsters, by name, were pushed out and by whom. As the Times series showed, it's difficult to know the exact numbers because there are so many different codes in the lost students' records to disguise which were pushed out of their schools rather than having moved away or transferred to parochial or other private schools.

And there's probably no way to find out how many were told by their teachers and principals that they were "too old" to keep on keeping on—and were not informed that state law gives them the legal right to stay in school until they are 21.

The Times revealed that when the Advocates for Children class-action suit on push-out began in January, Federal District Court Judge Jack Weinstein—who should have been on the United States Supreme Court years ago—"ordered the Department of Education to send out hundreds of letters to students who had been discharged from [Franklin K.] Lane [High School] since January 2000." The letter told them their rights to stay in school, asked how and why they stopped attending Lane, and what they've been doing since.

More than 100 students answered, and some joined the lawsuit, but not all the responses to the judge's letter have yet been tallied. Has Klein seen Weinstein's letter and the responses so far?

New York City high schools discharged more than 55,000 students from high schools during the 2000-01 school year. Is Klein going to send out letters to those students and ask how many were pushed out, by whom, and where they are now? Are any of the teachers and principals going to be made accountable for not telling these "undesirables" their legal right to not be thrown out of school?

And specifically, what kind of system is Klein putting in place to check on whether the push-outs are continuing, and where?

In the August 7 Daily News, Elisa Hyman, deputy director of Advocates for Children of New York and the lawyer in charge of the class-action suit, advocates "better funding for instruction, remedial help, truancy-prevention services and facilities such as science labs." Also attention to kids with disabilities, including, I would add, hearing and vision problems.

But how about bringing back Tony Alvarado as chancellor? And will the state board of regents replace Richard Mills with a commissioner to whom high-stakes testing is not a fundamental religion? And what's happening to the Franklin K. Lane students abandoned by the school system?

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