1999-06-11 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

If you thought that the fourth grade scores on the new English Language Arts test were low, wait until you see the scores on the Eighth grade (ELA) test. The state really set up the students for failure.

First of all, the two tests (ELA8 and Math8) were given over four days. That might not seem like lots of time to you, but to a young teenager who is apprehensive and frustrated, four days of testing is a long and trying time.

By the end of the second day, many of our students had given up, marking any answer just to get it over with.

To a number of students the test did not matter. They had failed both their subjects and their standardized tests many times and had never been left back. Why should they worry about this new test?

Secondly, the test was so new that it tested skills that the students had never developed.

As a case in point, the test required that the students listen to a three-page story read to them by the teacher twice. During the second reading by the teacher they were to use a graphic organizer to take notes. They were then to use those notes to write a composition.

You might argue that this is a valid skill to be tested, and you would be right. Teachers, however, did not usually teach note-taking skills per se and many of the kids were at a loss as to what to write down. Many tried to write down each word and lost lots of information. Many wrote down unimportant facts and skipped the important ones. Others did not know how to use the information that they gathered to write the composition.

In addition, the literature they listened to was a story about an American boy who was visiting Japan and it had lots of Japanese words.

What the state had in mind by using foreign words is beyond me.

Given another year, many kids who did not properly attack this task would be able to do so. It is a skill that has to be learned and it was not taught in many of our schools.

What the state should have done is made this test an instrument to norm those tests to come in future years.

It should not have counted against the students this year.

Not that the results will be available in a timely manner.

The ELA8 Test was given on June 1 and 2. The short answer portions of the test were sent to be marked on the next day. Teachers who will mark the listening and writing portions of the test will be trained on June 14. Marking will take at least a week in those schools with high registers. While Rockaway schools are small (JHS 198 has 5 eighth grade classes, IS 53 has 12, JHS 180 has fewer), mainland schools have massive numbers. J226 has 28 eighth grade classes for example, approximately 1,000 students. JHS 202 has even more.

That means the results of those tests will not be ready for use until late June, well after the eighth graders are scheduled to graduate and their records have been sent along to high schools.

The central board of education says that the short answer parts of the test will be ready to use for purposes of graduation. I don’t believe it.

Last year’s scores will probably have to be used.

In any case, thousands of students will be eligible to be held over after the tests are scored.

Many will go to summer school and retake the test in August. Others will go to summer school to make up failed subjects.

Others will not attend summer school. According to the Chancellor, they will find themselves back in the eighth grade in September.

Which opens interesting possibilities. Let’s take a school that is at capacity with 1,200 students. Let’s say, for argument sake, that a third (400 students) fail to make graduation requirements. Half go to summer school and pass, half do not. Those 200 students return to the junior high school, creating 7 new classes. Where will those seven classes find rooms, where will the extra 10 teachers come from?

At the same time, the local high school will not get those 200 students. They will have to excess 8 teachers. Will those 8 teachers move to the junior high school? Perhaps, kicking and screaming, but not any other way.

See what I mean? Lots of interesting possibilities.

One solution would be for the high schools to take the students and give them remedial work that would earn no high school credit.

High schools would effectively become grades 8 – 12 schools. Does anybody really want that?

That is a little like the city colleges giving remedial work to college students and we all know how that worked out.

If the Chancellor is sincere about stopping social promotion at the fourth grade, then the upper grades will no longer be getting kids who are moved along with no chance for success in junior high.

That is the solution. This is a no win situation for school people on the upper grades.

If the middle school has, for example, 30 percent of its students reading at the fifth percentile and it moves all of those kids from the fifth percentile to the twenty-fourth percentile (a prodigious feat), it does not count as a gain. Those kids are still in the first quartile.

If the school has 150 kids at the twenty-fourth percentile, however, and it moves them to the thirtieth percentile, that shows as a gain in the statistics because the kids are moving from the first quartile to the second.

If schools want to look good, they should concentrate on the kids who can move from one quartile to another and leave the others alone to their own devices. That is called educational triage, and it is both educationally and morally wrong.

Yet schools are vilified and principals are fired because they cannot move those kids from one quartile to another.

Something has to be done, and building tests that kids cannot pass is not the answer.

We have to look for a new way.

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