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19th July

First Published in The New York Sun,  July 19, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

The city’s school test scores were finally released last week: a real mixed bag of results that almost defy analysis. If you look at the scores from the side, and twist your head in just the right way, they might just look pretty good. Come around from the other side and they’re awful. Is your child’s school going up or going down? There are few clear answers coming from these scores, released much later than we normally see them. These results are so totally and completely confusing that it is hard to believe that they are not that way by design. They can and are being interpreted in so many ways that all of the educational players will point to them to justify whatever self-congratulatory point they want to make.

Harold Levy, the lame-duck chancellor and self-appointed spin-meister, tries to put the lipstick on the pig. Math is up, he squeals. Meanwhile, his new boss, Mayor Bloomberg, damns him with the faintest of praise and also points to disastrous results in eighth grade reading. Mr. Bloomberg is a lot closer to the bleak truth.
Keen observers knew that bad news was coming months ago. That’s when Mr. Levy started moaning about the negative effects that the events of September 11 were likely to have on the performance of New York City’s public school students. Without question, many kids were upset and concerned. But those events took place nearly nine months before most of the tests were administered. Kids are resilient, as demonstrated by the impressive gains posted by the schools nearest to Ground Zero.

Scores notwithstanding, we are simply teaching kids the wrong things in the wrong way. We are doing little to excite them by giving them the kinds of real knowledge that might spark further investigation. This is because the city’s educators are mostly following a so-called progressive or child-centered philosophy that may work in Scarsdale but becomes less and less effective in proportion to a lowering in socio-economic indicators such as income and education.

I believe that there are two things that tests should measure: movement and outcome. Despite the angst over high-stakes testing, in the larger picture of the lives of our children, the results of the fourthgrade test are generally irrelevant. It is the outcome of the totality of the education of our children that we should be concerned about. What are some of the outcomes?

In the eighth grade, many New York children do take a test that has truly high stakes.That is the test for admission to specialized high schools. There is an enormous difference between Bronx Science and Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx, and going to a school as exciting as Bronx Science changes the lives of many who get that opportunity (such as Harold Levy, who graduated from Bronx Science four years after I did).

We never hear much about the effectiveness of the 32 local districts in getting their students admitted to these elite schools in the same way that the results of the reading and math tests are publicized, though the districts’ results can speak volumes.

In the past 10 years, as the population of Community School District 10 in the northwest Bronx rose by 25%, the number of children admitted to the specialized high schools declined by two-thirds. Since the number of slots available citywide is constant, this is a very disturbing outcome.

Quizzed by the local school board about this year’s disastrous 25% decline in these admissions, District Superintendent Irma Zardoya came up with an explanation that surely made her boss, Mr. Levy, proud. She suggested that the drop-off may have been the result of September 11.

Private schools attempting to convince parents to send them their children and their money routinely provide the lists of the colleges to which seniors were admitted. This is another measure of outcome. Unfortunately, the outcome by which we measure most of our public high schools is the drop-out rate.

The other area we should measure is movement. This is a lot easier to do than evaluating outcomes. As I pointed out in a previous column, we measure the success of schools by, for example, comparing this year’s fourth grade with last year’s fourth grade. This really has little validity, and tells us next to nothing about the effectiveness of schools. Kids take tests, not schools. Value-added testing is a different, better way of looking at our school system. Baselines are established for each child entering the system, and growth is measured each year. This way the progress of the children in a class, a school, or a district can become the measure of just how well we are doing — from the child on up. Value-added assessment is currently in use in Tennessee, in Dallas, and has been adopted for use by the state of Florida.

Causing much confusion among teachers and principals is the fact that the city and state currently use different testing devices. The city’s CTB McGraw Hill reading and math tests are employed in grades 3, 5, 6, and 7. The state gives totally different tests in grades 4 and 8. This makes the measurement of year-to-year growth of individual children extremely difficult. The city and state should get on the same page and use the results to consistently measure the growth of students.

This could turn the New York educational world upside-down. Currently the model of academic effectiveness is Community School District 2, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I suspect that value-added testing may prove that the kids there enter the system doing well, largely because of the advantages offered by being brought up in more affluent and educated households. The job of the schools is not to take credit for the success of the parents, but to build upon it. Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out that some of the city’s poorer-performing districts are actually doing better with their children than District 2 is doing with its students?

School districts throughout the city are trying to replicate District 2’s high scores by copying its programs. That is one of the reasons why, despite all the evidence to the contrary, constructivist or fuzzy math is being adopted in many New York City school districts. It may turn out that kids who learn math by traditional methods show greater gains. If we measured the growth of individual children, we might begin to get answers to these questions.

The upscale demographics of District 2 may preordain success. Professor Lois Weiner of New Jersey City University suggested just that in a paper presented at a conference of the American Educational Research Association in April. Professor Weiner wonders whether the hype of the high scores have “obscured hard questions about District 2’s ability to diminish achievement differentials that correlate closely with race and poverty.”

Maybe some districts can do better by simply luring more doctors, lawyers, and other professionals into the schools in their districts. Many have suggested that District 2 is already doing this, gilding the lily by accepting scores of out-of-district children into schools such as East Side Middle.

Also open to question is whether the standards we are supposed to be meeting are actually the right ones. I have a sinking feeling that the word “standards” has been hijacked by those who are promoting just the opposite. But that will have to be a topic for a future column.

© 2002 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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