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20th June

First Published in The New York Sun, June 20, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

City Pupils Could Be Held Back On Basis of Five-Month-Old Tests

An uproar is greeting the news that thousands of elementary and middle school pupils in the city have been told that they will be held back for promotion to the next grade based on tests administered nearly six months ago that New York State still hasn’t finished grading.

Parents throughout the city, for the first time in memory, will be given report cards by their children on the last day of school that will not have the results of these standardized tests.The results will come too late for any remedial and intervention strategies that could have aided students lagging behind. Letters went home on Friday to parents of under-performing pupils in grades 3, 5, and 7, the three grades that require that students achieve at least a “Level 2” — bare minimum proficiency — on both the standardized English Language Assessment and Mathematics examinations in order to be promoted.Students may still attend summer school and pass the exams given at the end of the summer in order to win promotion. But unlike previous years, their summer school teachers will not know just how far behind these children are. Not only will the exact scores on these exams not be computed before the end of the school year, but in the case of the math tests, results won’t be available until after the new school year is well underway.

“This is not acceptable,” a City Council member, James Vacca, of the Bronx said yesterday. He said that parents “are owed an explanation,” adding that “for the first time in memory students will be bringing home their end of year report cards without standardized test scores.

The president of the United Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, called the delays “outrageous.”
Because of the delay in grading the exams, teachers and principals are basing much of their critical promotional decision-making on an interim “pass/fail” result provided by the state. This information only tells whether a child meets or doesn’t meet the minimum promotional criteria. Even that minimal information is provided only in the three grades with the mandatory holdover policy. Parents and teachers of students currently in grades 4, 6, and 8 will not get any results until the end of the summer.

The lack of complete results appears especially surprising since the English tests were administered in January and the math tests in March. Yet complete results are not expected until August and October, a full eight months since the tests were administered. The grading on the essay portion of the English tests was completed by teachers paid overtime to work during mid-winter break in February, and the grading of the problem portion of the math test was completed at the end of March, during two days that children received a day off so that teachers could mark the exams.

New York State has the worst record in the nation in terms of the length of the gap between the time that children take the tests and the point at which the scores become available is indeed unique. It puts New York State at the bottom of all of the 50 states in getting results back to teachers and parents. A New York Sun survey, done in conjunction with the Bronx Press and Riverdale Review, of the testing practices of all the states plus the District of Columbia found that the national average appears to be not much more than two months between testing and getting results to the pupils.

The experience of other large states shows just how far behind the curve New York is. California administers its tests in March and May, yet is able to return all results in May and June. Florida tests in June, and results are ready before the opening of school in late August. Texas tests children early in the school year, in October, and provides results by December, in time to use the information to help shape the instructional program for each child for the remainder of the school year.

Nearby states also do better. New Jersey administers tests in March and April and delivers results in June, as does Pennsylvania. Connecticut tests in March and delivers results in July. The Commonwealth of Virginia has the results of its exams just three weeks after they are administered in May and June.

Ms. Weingarten said she didn’t understand “why parents, teachers and students can’t get this information on a timely basis. These tests have been marked for months, so where are the results?” Long critical of the testing programs of the city and state, she said the delay makes the testing program “a joke” and “only reinforces people’s concerns about testing and the competence of those in charge. New York is the great Empire State, with Wall Street and Silicon Alley and the most talented people in the world. We have the ability to move mountains. Why is this simple task an exception?”

These concerns were echoed by Jill Levy, the president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union that represents the city’s principals. “These tests are not about children anymore,” she said. “Rather it has become about how the system can blame its employees, particularly its principals, for their own failures.”

A professor of education and psychology at New York University, Mark Alter, said that the late results are “pedagogically useless.” He asks, “how can teachers pick the correct remediation programs for at-risk students when the results come to the school after the child has moved on to the next grade or even left the school?”

According to the State Education Department, the problem results from the state assuming responsibility for testing every grade, which is a requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind Law. After the tests are graded they must be “normed” to determine, in essence, what number of questions must be answered correctly for a child to be considered to be on grade level.

Critics of the testing delays pin the responsibility on state education officials, rather than the city’s education department, which was being diplomatic last night. “We are doing everything within our power to make sound promotion decisions,” the chancellor, Joel Klein, said in a statement sent to the Sun via e-mail. “We have worked with the State and CTB/McGraw-Hill to determine which students in grades three, five, and seven scored at the lowest levels on state exams. And we’re working with schools to help teachers and principals determine, based on class work, attendance, and other criteria which students need extra help and which students are ready to progress to the next grade.”

One New York University professor, Robert Tobias, said that the State Education Department failed to plan adequately. “They knew that this had to be done, and they could have accomplished this far more efficiently,” he said in an interview with the Sun. Mr. Tobias suggested that part of the process might have been begun even before the tests were administered, and the work after the test could have been done with a greater sense of urgency. Mr. Tobias was the director of the Board of Education’s Department of Assessment and Accountability in the pre-Bloomberg days.

Mr. Vacca concurred. “State Ed knew it was coming, so why wasn’t it planned for?” he said. “This is causing many problems for the schools and the City Department of Education. At the very least, not having actual results makes a mockery out of plans to end social promotion.” He also noted that this testing mandate is not New York’s alone. “If other states could comply with NCLB regulations in so much less time, why not New York?”

When the state test schedule was announced last year, the city initially tried to administer a second set of tests that it would have graded in time to make promotional decisions. But when an outcry was raised by anti-testing advocates, a compromise was reached with the state to provide the interim results, quieting the controversy, until the lack of hard data became apparent in the past few days. Meanwhile, the State Education Department promises that next year it will provide results before classes end in June.

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

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