High-Stakes Tests


As the city’s increasingly apprehensive third-graders were being drilled by their teachers for the fateful April reading and math tests, the hosannas for the mayor’s “Monday Night Massacre” of dissenters on the Panel for Educational Policy resounded on the editorial pages:

Bloomberg’s Finest Hour – The New York Sun

Mayor Mike in Charge – New York Post

Mayor Bloomberg’s invigo-rating show of power – Daily News

Victory for Mayor, School Kids – Newsday

But the headline in the New York Times lead editorial, “Politics and School Promotion,” put dunce caps on the other editorial writers: “This mayor,” the Times continued, “who has virtually no experience in education,” has “made a political mistake in reinforcing the worst fears of opponents of mayoral control of the schools.”

Bloomberg figures that the 2005 scores will insure his re-election, with the low scorers screened out of the fourth grade. In any case, he will have officially told thousands of kids that they are dumb.

Oh, but their parents need not fear. They are promised by the mayor and his compliant chancellor that there will be intensive remediation for these laggards: In the Daily News, Nicole Bode and Joe Williams report on new 19-day, four-hour-a-day summer schools; a “work folder” for each child to ponder his or her practice tests; and “a log of interventions.”

And you know what, kids? The adults, including the principal and the math and literary coaches, will now be known as “Student Success Teams.” And everyone will be pulling to win the next test results for the Gipper—Coach Bloomberg.

But in the same March 17 Daily News story, Bode and Williams get to the core of the educational three-card monte game. Students who fail next month’s math or reading tests, and flunk them again after more drilling in summer school, “will remain in the same schools with the same teacher and the same curriculum next year.” (Emphasis added.)

The same teacher, trapped in the same curriculum imposed on the system by the removed deputy chancellor Diana Lam,will be in charge of the same further demoralized children.

Michael Winerip, who appears every Wednesday on the New York Times education page in the Metro Section, is the most perceptive, incisive, and challenging writer on schooling I have read since the days of Paul Goodman and George Dennison.

In his justly indignant March 17 account of the civics lesson the mayor and his chancellor “gave the one million school children of New York City” in “voter manipulation” two days before, Winerip notes that critics of the mayor’s nostrum for ending social promotion “say the money is better used to improve education starting in kindergarten, including reducing class size.”

This year, Winerip continues, “class size has increased citywide in every elementary grade.” (Emphasis added.)

Moreover, in his front-page New York Times story the same day, David M. Herszenhorn points out, “Over the last two decades, dozens of studies have led many educators to conclude that policies forcing students to repeat a grade are costly and counter-productive, resulting in no gains in student achievement and sharp increases in dropout rates.”

Actually, education should start in system-wide pre-kindergarten settings with teachers of such experience and skills that they get paid more than what is mandated by the one-size-fits-all union contract.

But as for the current third-graders, the Bloomberg-Klein “interventions” for those who need them should involve moving them into the fourth grade with teachers who have the necessary skills rather than keeping them back with part-time specialists, and the same third-grade teachers who failed them before.

There is another crucial question. How many kids treated as failures are mislabeled? In the March 17 Newsday, reporter Wil Cruz quoted a teacher with 13 years’ experience: “A child may be showing progress in the class and they may do better on classroom tests . . . [but] might be a little below grade, and will struggle on a [high-stakes test as in April] and not be promoted.”

Bloomberg-Klein have belatedly tried to reassure critics by setting up an appeals process for the kids who flunk the fateful tests. However, true to theircorporate-style myopia, once a teacher files that appeal, it goes up the bureaucratic ladder to be decided on finally by the local instructional superintendent, who has likely never seen the child.

And what of the kids who don’t test well, spooked by fears of disappointing their parents or being mocked by their contemporaries? Or those “failures” who have hearing and sight problems that are not obvious and may be undetected in large classes?

At the core, however, of the Bloomberg-Klein systemic misunderstanding of how and why kids learn is what former New York State education commissioner Thomas Sobol told the state senate Standing Committee on Education in September last year:

“We are imposing one uniform style of curriculum and teaching, whether it fits all teachers and students or not. . . . [High-stakes tests] stand whether or not the student has access to an appropriate curriculum, adequately prepared teachers . . . and a safe, orderly environment. . . . Penalizing students for the failures of the system is unfair.”

The Bloomberg-Klein system sure fits that description. And Sobol reminds us all: “Tests don’t teach children. Teachers do.” In Newsday, a Queens teacher says that she devotes about five hours to test prepping each week. “Social studies, science, they get put to the back burner.”

That’s where the voters should put Bloomberg and Klein.

Next week: The City Council flunks the mayor’s jerry-built “retention” plan and proposes one that could work.