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4th August

First Published in The New York Sun, August 4, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

Here’s a bit of news from the New York State Department of Education. It didn’t come to me as a result of a press conference or a news release, nor did any unnamed source meet furtively with me in a garage to slip me a package of confidential information. Rather this news came in the form of a help wanted ad that appeared in newspapers Sunday.

The news is that the state of New York, whose programs to administer academic tests to students has come under so much criticism, is simply not serious about fixing their broken system. As a result the education of millions of New York’s children will continue to be compromised.

How do I know that the state isn’t serious about reforming its test programs? The job in question is the director of the Division of Educational Testing for the state, and the advertised salary for the post is $94,543 a year. After some unspecified period of time and “performance advances,” the salary could reach a maximum of $119, 658.

Let’s put this into perspective. This is about the pay scale of an elementary school principal in New York City. Middle and High School principals make more. Principals in dozens of suburban districts earn significantly more. New York State proposes to pay its testing chief , responsible for the educational assessment of millions of school children, less than what most school principals earn. Lori Mei, who recently retired from a similar post for the city’s Department of Education was earning over $183,000 a year.

When questioned about the low salary, the State Education Department spokesman, Jonathan Burman, suggested that the cost of living in Albany, where the job is located, is much lower than the city. This is true. But the Albany location is in itself a downside, not one of the most exciting cities for a top professional to relocate to.

The requirements for the post also suggest that the state is not serious in finding a high-powered person. Only a non-specific Masters degree is required, which could be satisfied by an M.S. in animal husbandry, along with just seven years of educational experience , three of which must be in testing and assessment.

The successful applicant must “oversee management of the Test Development and Test Administration Units for quality process improvements in the preparation, production and distribution of Statewide examinations.” These include the Regents exams taken in many subject areas by high school students and the testing of children in K-8 that is required by the No Child Left Behind law.

NCLB requires that tests must be administered each year in grades 3 through 8, and it is the state that must provide, grade, and evaluate these exams. The federal government demands that these tests be evaluated for many subgroups, such as ethnic minorities, economically disadvantaged students, special education students and English language learners. This is a task that the Keystone Kops of the State Education Department have demonstrated they are not up to.

New Yorkers have grown used to the headlines about the mistakes made in creating the tests and then failing to accurately grade them. We have heard about the editing and “cleansing” of reading passages drawn from literature. We have heard about the tests that are either way too hard or laughingly easy. Just a few weeks ago, the Sun reported that among all states, New York is the slowest to grade its standardized exams, making them useless as a tool to help evaluate individual students.

To me, the greatest problem that the testing officials will have is resisting the political pressure to deliver through statistics what cannot be achieved in the classroom. Last year’s incredible 10-point jump in the number of fourth graders reading at grade level is a case in point. This dramatic increase helped fuel Mayor Bloomberg’s reelection bid, giving credibility to the mayor’s stewardship of the schools. But scores increased not just in the city, but across the state in public, private, parochial and charter schools. Clearly the test was either easier, or scored more generously.

The best way to evaluate this problem is to compare the results of any state’s standardized tests with the National Assessment of Educational Progress. There is a yawning gap between the number of children that the state says are at grade level grade level and those passing the NAEP tests. For instance, while the state claims 70% of its fourth graders to be performing acceptably in reading, NAEP suggests that the figure is only 33%. New York has one of the worst gaps of any state evaluated, according to an article in the scholarly journal Education Next.

So why is the state not looking for a top-flight person to fill this essential post? I suggest that the Regents step in and stop the application process and revise the terms. The requirements for the post should include a doctorate in psychometrics, extensive experience, and a salary that will attract the best professional, with the stature to tell us not what the politicos want to hear but the truth that we all need to hear.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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