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3rd February

First Published in The New York Sun, February 3, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

It is said that Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” is the most recorded song, ever. The famous lyric goes “Sometimes I wonder why I spend … The lonely nights … Dreaming of a song.”

The problem of our schools is like a song lyric that you just can’t get out of your head. Hence I have so often written in this space about the need for testing and the foibles of those who administer those tests here in the Empire State. The situation only seems to get worse.
On Monday, my former Sun colleague, David Andreatta, who now reports for the Post, disclosed that the standards on the state’s “Mathematics A” Regents exam have somehow gotten lower. A student, in fact almost any being that can grab a pencil and make marks on paper, now only needs to score correct answers on 27% of the questions to eke out a passing grade.This is down from 31%.

Passing is supposed to be 55, itself a low bar, but through the illusions of psychometrics, a technical term for what we used to call “marking on a curve,” New York State turns 27% into a score of 55. There are 84 “points” that are awarded on the test, and getting 23 points correct works out to 27%. How easy is it to get 23 points to be awarded a passing grade?

Two points are awarded for each of 30 multiple-choice questions. That gives anyone who guesses on all questions 16 of the 23 points he needs to pass. If a test taker has anything on the ball, she will do better simply by getting a few of the easiest questions right, or eliminating a few of the most obvious wrong choices. That is before we come to the points for more complex problems, where but a teaspoon of partial credit could put even the most dense (or unlucky) student back into contention.

The Board of Regents is concerned because it has decreed that to graduate, a student must pass five Regents exams — in as many years as it takes.This is a low bar, yet one that many students cannot meet.This is a problem, but the solution is not continually lowing the bar.

The last time I visited this issue, the percentage needed for a passing grade was 31. The many who were shocked then will surely be distressed once more, now that things have gotten just a bit worse. When will the Regents suck it in and demand real standards? The truth is that we are lying to children, their parents, and ourselves when we keep lowering the bar and pretending pupils are passing subjects.

Another depressing bit of news came from the City’s Department of Education last week. It seems that it will cost $24 million between now and the end of the school year for the extra busing needed to implement the school day extension, negotiated as part of the teacher’s contract. I am not among those who believe more money solves all educational ills. But I do think that every penny we do have should be spent wisely.

This $24 million (which in the next full school year will probably come to $50 million a year) does about as much good for the children as would tossing the money into the ocean. This amount could just about fund an additional teacher in every single city school, which seems to me to be a better investment than paying for duplicate school bus runs.

The new schedule is set to go into place on Monday, and I predict there will be a huge outcry. The real anger will come when parents realize that their own children have actually lost 10 minutes of instructional time, in essence given over to other people’s children, the lowestperforming one third, deemed to be more in need and thus more worthy of the best possible education. This problem was first reported by our Deborah Kolben yesterday.

Every child could benefit from a longer school day. Some children may need remediation, but others could benefit from enrichment. The $50 million we are spending (above and beyond the extra money the teachers are already getting) could be spent in a dozen more productive ways.

Yes, sometimes I wonder if a commonsense education policy is “the stardust of yesterday … The music of the years gone by.”

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

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