Are High-Stakes Tests Harming NYC Schools?

Are No Child Left Behind and Bloomberg's report cards pushing schools to go grade-grubbing?

He adds that he has shared his methods with other principals, but hasn't seen them catch on. "They're such in a panic mode that they're going to get a D or an F that they'll do anything."

One such "anything" is test prep. Numerous city schools—the city says it doesn't keep specific records—have hired Kaplan and other private firms to coach their students. Another tactic, allegedly, is avoiding low test scores by keeping out low-scoring students: Foote says school staffers have told her of high school students whose transfer requests were denied because they hadn't passed the Regents English test. (Asked about this, city schools spokesperson Danny Kanner said that it would be a violation of department policy.)

Polakow-Suransky says the DOE tries to discourage what he calls "knee-jerk test prep culture" through its quality reviews, in which experts do site visits to schools and provide feedback. "There are always going to be cases of weak leaders or weak teachers that go to what they see as the shortest path to a solution," he says. "I don't think that's the dominant response in our schools."

Yet Brooklyn parent Alla Valente worries that the test emphasis itself is affecting students' school experience. Her two children, she says, "are very different test takers. I have one child who goes into this dead calm, and actually scores better on standardized test than on her class tests. I have another child who gets so nervous that he rushes through it just to be done. Because there's so much emotion that goes into taking these tests, I don't think the test is an accurate assessment of their level."

More than that, though, Valente says the testing culture has changed the atmosphere at city schools. "My youngest, from when he was in kindergarten, knew the difference between a 2 and a 3 and a 4," she says. "When schools are being judged under such scrutiny, that trickles down to the teachers, and that, obviously, trickles down to the students. I don't understand why the city's desire to do all these analytics has to translate into so much anxiety for my children."

No Child Left Behind is up for reauthorization in Congress this year, and most educators are counting on its more draconian requirements being eased. "They're just going to waive the requirements or give an extension," predicts the outer-borough principal. "They're raising the bar so high that no one in society has ever accomplished it." Yet the same arguments were made in 2007, when NCLB was originally set to expire. Instead, Congress extended the existing law. "It was like a third rail—everybody in Congress was afraid to touch it," says Neill, who rates the odds of the law being revised this year at no better than 50/50.

In fact, testing critics note with alarm that while Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, has criticized NCLB for starting a "race to the bottom" for states to lower standards, his own new policies feature even more emphasis on high-stakes testing. To be eligible for Duncan's new Race to the Top grants, for example, states must allow teacher evaluation and pay to be tied to student test scores. "It's not NCLB anymore—it's NCLB on steroids," says Class Size Matters director Leonie Haimson. "This is something that was never contemplated under George Bush, and yet the Obama Administration is moving ahead with it."

As for New York, the widespread assumption is that the state is going to have to toughen up its tests—or at least its scoring—in response to the NAEP controversy. But that would almost certainly result in plunging test scores, even as the NCLB requirements jump up another notch.

City schools officials, meanwhile, are keeping their heads down. "We have seen tremendous gains on state tests," says the DOE's Kanner. Will that be enough to keep up with the tougher requirements? "We're on a good trajectory. But 2014 is a long way away."

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