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12th August
2005

First Published in The New York Sun, August 12, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

The city’s Department of Education released the testing schedule for the next school year, enraging parents, principals, and politicians alike. Students in three grades will be required to take two nearly identical sets of standardized examinations, a wasteful, expensive enterprise that is providing ammunition for anti-testing advocates.

Educrats here blame the state Education Department, which in turn blames the No Child Left Behind law spearheaded by the Bush administration. In this case, the blame rests squarely with our state officials, who demonstrate incompetence when it comes to assessing the academic progress made by our children. City officials, such as Chancellor Klein and the mayor himself, ought to be complaining about the expense, effort, and embarrassment that has fallen on them as a result.
Federal law requires states to test each public school child in grades three through eight as a condition of receiving federal funds. Before this year, New York administered tests only in the fourth and eighth grades. Local school districts, such as New York City, filled in the gaps.This created problems as the city and state opted for different tests that made it hard to gage grade-tograde comparisons of the academic progress made by our children.

Annual statewide testing of all grades afforded an opportunity. Children in each grade throughout the state could now be tested on a consistent basis using a uniform testing device. Inexplicably, the state has made the least of a good thing and turned it into a nightmare for those who believe that testing, as painful as it may be, is the only reliable way to measure the effectiveness of our schools.

What they did was to schedule their tests for the winter, beginning in early January. This renders the tests useless either as a diagnostic tool to aid teachers in determining the academic needs of individual students or as a device to determine whether a child has performed well enough to earn promotion to the next grade. So incompetent are the state officials that scores on the English Language Assessment tests given in early January will not be released until the following August.

We are now firmly into the 21st century, when the scores on tests administered today can be delivered almost instantaneously. This is certainly true of the multiple-choice portions, which make up a large part of the tests. Even the essays can be graded in a matter of days, at worst weeks. There is no reason for an eight-month turnaround.

Teachers and principals tell me that on the basis of individual children, these tests are useless to them. It gives them information that is so outof-date that many of the children will have moved or been promoted to middle or high schools by the time the results arrive. The only value that remains is a picture of school performance that, while useful, misses the central point that the progress made by schools and districts is the totality of that made by the thousands of individual students.

This puts the city in a bind. A program to end “social promotion” has been put in place in grades three, five, and seven. How can one refuse to promote a child at the end of a school year based on failing a test administered five months earlier? Thus, the city was forced to administer a second round of tests for the purpose of determining which children earned promotion to the next grade.

Even the city has dropped the ball on this. It plans to give their tests, on which the promotional decisions will be made, in early April. This leaves nearly three months of the school year unevaluated. It also sends a subliminal message to students and teachers alike that the real work of the school year has ended. In many schools, little learning takes place once the students have taken their tests.

Tests should be given as close to the end of each school year as possible. They can then be used as a yardstick of progress. Technology makes quick turnaround of test results possible. So why aren’t we taking full advantage of this?

Now is the time for the governor and the legislature to step in and force the state’s educrats to redraw the testing calendar so the tests are administered in early June and graded within 10 days. This relieves students and teachers of duplicative tests and gives everyone — students, parents, and teachers — a picture of each child’s progress or lack of progress in the preceding school year. The city can then use this uniform data, not just in three grades, but in every grade to make tough, fair, and timely promotional decisions. Once the new school year begins the following September, the results can give each child’s teacher a reference point to develop instructional programs that will address the needs of the children in the class.

This data can then be used to comply with the federal law that will be used to evaluate the performance of the schools. But now the state and city will have returned to the original purpose of testing, which begins with each individual child.

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

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