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29th August

First Published in The New York Sun, August 29, 2008

It is now just 10 months before the expensive experiment that is mayoral control of Gotham’s public schools is set to expire. And as parents ready their children for the start of classes Tuesday, the news has been released that the average S.A.T. scores have declined here once again.

There was no press extravaganza. No Power Point presentations, no top officials, union leaders at their side, beaming as the results were outlined. No, troubling test results turn out to be an orphan.

One could ask that if high school graduation rates are increasing, and if the scores on state’s standardized tests have increased so dramatically, why then are the S.A.T. scores, arguably a nationally-normed “exit exam” for high school students, going down?

Department of Education officials insist that it is because more children are taking the exam, a policy that the Department has been encouraging now for years. This is not borne out by the national results where an increase in test takers is also reported. Overall, the results across the country are flat, despite more, presumably less qualified, students taking the tests.

If there is a trend to be found here it is this. Whenever someone other than the State of New York administers a test, scores here are flat, or even go down. But when those kind folks from Albany come on the scene, scores on their tests magically increase, a phenomenon that explains the increases in graduation rates as well.

This is truly “high stakes” testing. As public revenues shrink, and lawmakers look for new ways to pick the taxpayers’ pocket, education funding has been largely maintained this lean year, following six fat years which saw the local school budget grow an astounding 79%. It is more than fair to ask if this really has been a prudent investment.

The S.A.T. decline comes at the heels of the decline of the number of students passing Advanced Placement exams in schools in which a privately-funded incentive program was put in place. Last week the results of that initiative were announced. Despite rewards of as much as $1,000 for those achieving a top score of 5, the number of those passing the test decreased in the schools participating in the experiment, even though the number of children taking the A.P. courses and the test increased.

This has become a sort of lottery type phenomenon, where it is recognized that “you can’t win it if you’re not in it,” even though the odds of grabbing the top prize may still be impossibly long. And why shouldn’t the students feel they can win? After all, they and their parents have seen their scores on the standardized tests administered by the state in grades 3 through 8 increase so dramatically, and they have been sailing through the subject area Regents exams administered in high school as well.

These are the real victims of test score inflation, a phenomenon that has been good to adults such as state education commissioners, superintendents, union leaders, school boards, and even mayors, all of whom can boast of the great job they are doing.

Even gains in real estate prices, as my colleagues here at the Sun reported to a startled readership in January, just before the slump was recognized, look different when held to a “gold standard.” In this case the gold standard is the NAEP exams administered by the federal government. Until the state tests are aligned with the results of NAEP, all of the “profit” that we are told that the extra nine billion a year we are investing in our schools is bringing us will be, alas, but fool’s gold.

In fact it is worse than that, because if test score inflation gives the impression that the policies we are following are correct, we will continue to pour more resources down the drain. Based on the bogus state test scores, thousands of principals and teachers will receive bonuses that, arguably, were not a result of any of the strategies they used in the classroom.

Meanwhile other approaches, such as the restoration of a rigorous curriculum and the abandonment of the touchy-feely instructional strategies, things that a number of us so-called “instructivists” believe would bear fruit in the long haul (as they have in the past here and today elsewhere in the world), are not pursued.

Unlike a business investment where all that is lost is money, it is the future of children and our state’s competitiveness that is compromised. Which is why I have been saying that, just as we subject public corporations to independent audit, we must do so with our schools as well.

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

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