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23rd January
2006

First Published in The New York Sun, January 23, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

The announcement on Thursday of two reforms to the school system hints of a fresh breeze coming from the Tweed Courthouse, a kinder and gentler reform, more bottom up than top down.

Most press attention has concentrated on the proposal by the chancellor, Joel Klein, to expand the “autonomy zone,” a small group of schools with principals who have been somewhat freed from the centralized management that has characterized the way business is done at Tweed.This is a positive development.
The more important reform proposed by the chancellor has to do with testing. Currently, we evaluate schools by measuring, for example, this year’s fourth grade against last year’s fourth grade — the results of a different test administered to different children are used to determine the “success” of schools.This is the type of analysis that the federal government requires from states to demonstrate each school’s annual yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act.

This is a far from optimal assessment method.The best schools are not necessarily those that score highest, but rather those that achieve the greatest improvement by individual students. That is what “value added” testing, developed by a University of Tennessee professor, William Sanders, is about.

Thus, a high-performing school blessed with privileged demographics, such as P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side, may not be a “better”school than a lowperforming school in the South Bronx. This is because we are evaluating schools only by the percentage of children achieving an artificial “grade level.” There is now no advantage gained for the school from programs that take already high-performing students to greater heights, nor any consequences for schools where high-performing students may stagnate.

Is it any wonder, then, that the needs of academically advanced students are methodically ignored? In the push to get children over the relatively low bar of “grade level,” better students are left behind.Value added testing makes it much harder to ignore the imperative of advancing these children. Their improvement becomes as valuable as that of low-performing children.

Similarly, the current system ignores gains made by students who enter the system at extraordinarily low levels and may make enormous progress but still don’t achieve grade level.There are tens of thousands of older students here who come to New York having never seen anything that you or I would recognize as a real school.There is little incentive to improve the performance of these children, who may be perceived as having little chance of achieving grade level.

The real genius of value added testing is the focus on the individual student. Current testing methodology seems to forget that the real purpose of testing is to help individual students by measuring their strengths and weaknesses.While Mr. Sanders, the designer of the program, warns against this, it also has been suggested that value added testing could form the basis for merit pay for teachers.

Unfortunately, in attempting test reform, Mr. Klein is forced into a marriage with a noxious spouse, the New York State Education Department, the Keystone Kops of standardized testing. The
English Language Arts tests being administered this month are a case in point. The full results of these tests will become available in August at the earliest, a full eight months after the tests are administered. It is hard to find, in the computerdriven world of the 21st century,a reason why it should take so long to grade these tests, and to what possible use teachers can put these results so long after the test is administered.

Because the Department of Education uses the test results to make promotional decisions, the city will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain interim grades for the short-answer portion of the tests earlier. This program to end social promotion is undermined by using tests administered in January to help determine promotion in June, a problem forced upon Mr. Klein by the state.

Moreover, the state tests have come under increasing fire for grade inflation. New York State has a widening gap between its test scores and those reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal test that is used as a yardstick to measure the accuracy of results reported by the states.While New York State insists that 70% of fourth-graders are proficient in reading, the NAEP results peg this figure at just 33%. It is time for a reality check.

In conjunction with adopting value added testing, this represents an opportunity for Mr. Klein to insist on the tougher standards of the NAEP and take the one-time hit of setting a truly accurate baseline. The term-limited Mayor Bloomberg has the unique freedom to do so without having to pay a political price.
The second major reform announced by the chancellor, granting greater autonomy to principals of a limited number of schools, is also promising, but the devil is in the details.

One of the criticisms of the mayor’s administration of the education system has been the top-down control of the schools from the Tweed Courthouse.The hierarchical structure put in place by Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein has tended to fall heavily on individual schools.

In an attempt to address the complaints of the city’s alternative schools and some of the small new high schools, an “autonomous zone” was established last year comprising 30 schools, since increased to 48. These schools were given latitude in curriculum, professional development, structure, and purchasing. They and their principals are delighted, but there is little evidence to show that, a year and a half into the five-year experiment, this structure offers any advantage or disadvantage to students.

Sensitive to complaints about topdown management, Mr. Klein wants to expand the “autonomy zone” to 200 schools.It is unclear whether all of these schools would be given the wide discretion over curriculum choice enjoyed by the original 30. The new schools would be selected based on the perceived abilities of the principals, leading to the question of what the fate of the school would be upon the ultimate departure of every incumbent principal.

The question for the chancellor is why, if autonomy is a better structure, the new paradigm isn’t applied to all schools.Autonomy could cover the selection of teaching methodologies and curriculum from an approved list that could include everything from the touchyfeely balanced literacy approach of Carmen Fariña to the rigorous Core Knowledge curriculum of E.D. Hirsch Jr.

Now that would be reform. But Mr. Klein deserves kudos for his willingness to move the system in a way that could correct some of the mistakes he and the mayor have made thus far.

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

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