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14th April
2006

First Published in The New York Sun , April 14, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

Earlier this week, Chancellor Klein unveiled a new system of accountability for schools, the first “reform” of the existing reform effort in our public education system. I have a particular interest in one aspect of the chancellor’s plan, the use of “value added” testing that measures increases or decreases in the performance of individual students. Schools can then be evaluated by how successful they are in moving children ahead. Current testing measures the performance of a particular grade against last year’s numbers. Since we are dealing with different children taking different tests, this data is not as useful. Last year’s test results marked a low point. Inflated scores raised questions over testing procedures. Most responsibility for the debacle can be laid at the feet of the State Education Department, seeking to avoid sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Such kindnesses make victims of children.The first step in helping a student is an honest assessment of academic shortcomings. Of all the ideas I have advanced on education topics in this space, “value added testing” is among the few that have resonated with the chancellor. I first wrote about this in October 2002, shortly after Mr. Klein assumed his post. For quite some time, he has been talking about this, so I’m glad to see he has come around. He is right conceptually, but his proposed implementation raises concerns. The problem is that Mr. Klein has no authority to supplant the existing state testing structure. This means additional rounds of city-administered tests on top of the already onerous state schedule. Parents are getting antsy over the huge chunk of their children’s classroom time taken up by test-related activities. Once the details emerge of Mr. Klein’s plan, expect an uproar by parents, led by the anti-testing lobby.

Ironically, a key figure in Mr. Klein’s own reform effort, Eric Nadelstern, who directs the expanding “Autonomy Zone,” is an icon of the movement against standardized testing. In a letter to the New York Times, Mr. Nadelstern once wrote, “Replacing the joy of learning with test anxiety simply hastens the premature end of childhood.” As principal of the International School in Queens, one of the first to be granted a state charter, Mr. Nadelstern led the school back into the public school system, because as a charter, the law requires standardized testing. Scandalously, this school, and a handful of others are still exempt from testing thanks to state educrats and legislators.
Mr. Klein proposes tests administered every six to eight weeks, which would be coupled with the state results. What I don’t understand is how this initiative, termed “Periodic Progress Measures,” differs from the “Interim Assessments” that Mr. Klein put in place, with much fanfare, at the beginning of the 2003-04 school year. The efficacy of this program was questioned by experts, such as Robert Tobias, a New York University professor who once ran the city’s testing program. These tests are so short that Mr. Tobias felt that it would be “difficult to obtain diagnostic information about a wide range of skills.” Principals and teachers tell me that after two years, Mr. Tobias’s concerns were well founded. How does the new program differ?

The best thing about value added testing is that it measures the performance of individual students, rather than being primarily used as a punitive device in the rating of schools or personnel. A good test will identify a student’s strengths and weaknesses so that a teacher can alter instruction to meet needs. We have departed far from that ideal. In mid January , students in New York State took an English Language Arts exam, the results of which will not be available until August. By then they will be useless as a tool to help students.

There seems to be not much new in this first “reform of reform” initiative. I’m disappointed that Mr. Klein headlined his promising testing initiative with A, B, C grades for schools, coupled with “cash rewards” and the scapegoating of principals.

Right now, principals can and have been fired or forced out, made easier by mass retirements of experienced school leaders replaced by rookies who can be remove at will during the first years of their tenure. There have been, for years, school report cards containing significant amounts of data, mandated by state law, as well as both state and federally mandated lists of “failing” schools. Under their current contract, principals and other administrators already get bonuses for performance increases in their schools. I don’t see how directing “reward” money from troubled to successful schools is a more potent incentive.

This is coupled with what appears to be a subjective assessment of schools termed a “Quality Review” by a British firm, Cambridge Education, which appears to have somewhat limited experience in America. This presumably comes at the suggestion of a former aide to Prime Minister Blair, Sir Michael Barber,who is advising Mr. Klein. If we are to import advice from Britain, I suggest that we follow the recent report of its national reading panel confirming that phonics “should be taught as the prime approach in learning” to read and write, the opposite of the strategy that Deputy Chancellor Carmen Fariña has advocated and implemented here in New York.

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

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