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4th January

First Published in The New York Sun, January 4, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

On Tuesday, elementary school pupils in the city will sharpen their number two pencils and sit down for two or three days of the state’s English language arts test. The following Tuesday, it will be the turn of middle school students.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Not so much for the students, since only a small proportion in only some grades are held back, despite the city’s policy of “ending” social promotion. The real pressure is on the principals and teachers to “perform.”

A number of incentives for “performance” have been put on the table. Merit pay, which could reach as much as $50,000 a year for principals and $3,000 for teachers, is one. The possibility of the removal of the principal, the “closing” of the school, or unsatisfactory ratings for teachers, are among the possible consequences.

All this will be expressed in the new school report card grades, 85% of which will be based on these test scores and improvements posted by students on these tests from year to year.

So that is why teachers and administrators across the city are telling me that they feel the pressure. How the principals and teachers will lift the scores of individual students is an interesting question, since it has been my experience that, despite constant rhetoric to the contrary, most city educators are dedicated to doing the best for their charges.

When the children fill in the first bubble on their answer sheets Tuesday, only 36 school days will have transpired since the report cards were issued in early November. What pedagogical strategy could, in that short a period, have an impact on the scores on tests that are designed to measure ability to read and understand, rather than specific subject matter?

My concern is that out of fear for their jobs, or greedy for extra money, some principals and teachers will resort to cheating. And it wouldn’t take much cheating to yield significant swings in the fortunes of schools.

In the past, it was the practice of the Board of Education to dispatch district administrators to the schools on test day to oversee procedures. They would check on whether the tests were stored in a secure place in unopened cartons observe the opening of the cartons and removal of the shrink wrap on the exams, and monitor the distribution and collection of the test materials.

This was not exactly high security, as proven by a number of incidents of cheating that took place over the years but it was a far higher level of security than what is in place today. The dissolution of the district and regional office staffs has had the unintended consequence of eliminating even this low level of exam proctoring.

It won’t take too much illicit manipulation to yield results for those who stand to benefit. Even a single additional correct answer can push a child from Level 2 to Level 3, and a few dozen such children can translate into a gain of several percentage points in the measured success of a school.

I come back to a case that is so suspicious that it begs a serious investigation, one that has not been forthcoming. On June 12 of last year, I reported that the case of P.S. 33 in the Bronx had been referred for investigation by the Special Investigator for the New York City School District, Richard Condon.

In 2005, P.S. 33 reported a remarkable increase of nearly 50 points in just one year on the fourth grade English language arts test. So impressive were these scores that the mayor and chancellor held a press conference at the school announcing the system-wide “historic gains” on the exam.

The school’s principal, Elba Lopez, was awarded a $15,000 bonus for her work. Ms. Lopez promptly retired, the bonus applied to her final salary, increasing her pension to the tune of some $12,000 a year, city and state tax free, for the rest of her life.

I have no evidence that Ms. Lopez cheated, and have been unable to reach her for comment. But since she left, the entire gain of 2005 quickly evaporated, a circumstance that warrants looking in to. I have since learned that on the day I wrote of the investigation in the Sun, the matter was returned by Mr. Condon to the Department of Education, where it still lies unresolved.

Chancellor Klein could put the fear of God into his staff by announcing, prior to Tuesday’s test, that all answer sheets will be subjected to computer analysis that has successfully identified patterns of cheating in Chicago and Texas. He could make it clear that any educator caught would be dismissed and lose his or her pension rights.

If Commissioner Condon, who passed on the P.S. 33 matter just days after it was referred to him, isn’t interested in pursuing that case, perhaps Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson or Attorney General Cuomo, both of whom have jurisdiction, could open their own investigations.

It’s important, for when it comes to a default on testing, the big losers would be the children denied the truth about where they really stand academically.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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