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16th September

First Published in The New York Sun, September 16, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

Gotham’s third-, fifth-, and seventhgrade students received good news this week. As a result of a “compromise” between the city’s Department of Education and the State Education Department, the students will only need to take one set of standardized tests this year, not two. This comes from efforts to comply with federal regulations under the No Child Left Behind education law. These require states to administer objective tests to children in grades three through eight every year.

That the children will have to take but one set of tests is the only good to come from a bad deal, a compromise that doesn’t fix the mess created by the incompetence of the state officials. The result may be fewer tests, but the ones given will undermine the reason that tests are administered in the first place: to help children learn by identifying weaknesses. A casualty of this may be Mayor Bloomberg’s program to “end” social promotion.
Here’s the problem: The city is using standardized tests as the criteria for promotion. One would think that any test on which promotion is based reflects the complete picture of achievement during the school year. In order to do that, such a test should be administered at the end of the school year.

Now enter the world of the educrats. The state’s English Language Assessment test will be administered on January 10, before even half the school year is completed.

How can you tell third-grade students who have never taken a standardized test of this type that they will not be promoted based on a test given so many months before?

I predict outrage over this, anger that will permit schools to lean more heavily on subjective criteria such as “portfolios” when making promotional decisions. All this undermines those who recognize that testing is the worst form of assessment, except for all others, to paraphrase the words of Winston Churchill regarding democracy.

Initially, the city’s problem was that the state would take eight months to grade the exams, too late for the city to use the results to make promotional decisions. The compromise is that the state will provide the city with “interim” results by June, that is, the grades on the multiple-choice portion of the tests. It could be that some students held back on the basis of this test, administered months before, will ultimately achieve a passing grade when the writing portion of the test is factored in. This is hardly fair. The state will pay the cost for the early results: $300,000. Big deal.

Things get worse. The essays and the computational portions of the math tests are marked by teachers on school time. These are hours and days of lost instruction. In fact, city students in grades K-8 will be kept home for two days at the end of March to free up teachers to grade the math tests.

In previous columns, I have criticized the city’s Education Department for administering its tests in April or early May. But next to what is now planned, the old system is looking a lot better. It is inconceivable that it should take longer to mark exams today than it did when I was a student nearly a half-century ago.
Let’s demand that the educrats do it right. These tests should be given at the beginning of June, and we should grade them in days instead of months. With modern technology, why can’t we get rapid feedback on test results?

To mark essays, we should hire retired teachers and not steal classroom time from students. This would be a modest investment worth every penny.

By taking our “snapshot” of student performance at the end of the school year, we are being fair to students in the event that the results indicate that they may be held back. At the same time, we are giving principals the ability to evaluate the achievements of both the students and the teachers based on the totality of the school year. Finally, we are giving the child’s next teacher a useful evaluative tool that can help shape instruction when school re-opens the following September.

All this can be done with off-the-shelf technology by education officials who have the energy and commitment. That we are celebrating a deal that accomplishes so little is a reflection of the low expectations we have of our school system.

We may have come to the moment when the stakeholders in our public schools — parents, educators, and taxpayers — should demand new leadership in the state agency. Commissioner Richard Mills — while saying that he supports testing — has, through his bumbling administration of the testing program, undermined the imperative of objective assessment. It is time for him to move on. We need a state education chief and a department that are not paralyzed by bureaucratic inertia.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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