2000-06-17 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

"Success in America is like a quiz show," a public school parent tells the New York Time’s Anemona Hartocollis. "It’s how to be a millionaire, and there is a number in there."

That parent might have been speaking about the rise and fall of the Dow Jones Industrials, but he was not. He was talking about his child’s reading score in the latest round of high-stakes testing.

"In the war of perception against reality, almost nothing can be harder to gauge than the meaning of test scores," says a testing expert. "It seems only common sense that a system of 78,000 teachers and 1.1 million schoolchildren – or, as Mr. Levy likes to point out, one out of 42 schoolchildren in America – is too big an ocean liner to turn around in one year. Is the curriculum new and wonderful? Did the quality of teachers improve? There is no systematic evidence of either. Yet parents and teachers are encouraged to judge their children and schools the way investors watch the Dow Industrials."

What do the scores mean? Almost anything you want them to mean.

Add to the usual misunderstandings, this year’s tests are reporting the scores in a different way. Instead of the usual "grade equivalents" of years gone by or the more recent "percentiles," these scores are reported in "performance standards." Like the SAT’s, these standards range from 427 to 810. A committee of testing experts, teachers and administrators ranked those scores into four "levels." Those in the lowest quartile (whatever that means anymore) are in Level 1, the next quartile in Level 2 and so on. Level 4 is the highest level and few children in Rockaway reached that "standard." In fact, there were whole schools in which there was not one student in Level 4.

According to the Times, "many experts say performance standards are a better measure of what students know than percentile scores, but they caution that the standards are somewhat arbitrary and subject to the caprices, judgment and manipulation of the officials who establish the cut off points."

"There’s no precise science for deciding what meets standards and what doesn’t," the test expert admits.

I have often been called a racist for using school profiles to attempt to explain reading scores. It has been said before in the media that one needs only to look at the number of free lunch applications a school processes to predict its reading level.

At the risk of being called a racist one more time, let’s take a look at the statistics:



Free Lunch





PS 42




PS 105





PS 114




MS 198









PS 106




PS 207




MS 202




PS 232




PS 223




There are exceptions to the rule, of course. The stats for PS 183 and PS 106 are somewhat skewed upward by the fact that they are ASTRE schools and get a fair amount of kids who are considered intellectually gifted. In addition, PS 105 is not longer in District 27. It has been taken over by the Chancellor’s District because it was on the SURR (School Under Register Review) list for three years. Incidentally, it went down by more than 11 points this year, when most of the other schools went up. So much for a chancellor’s takeover improving a school.

How did those schools listed fare on the test in relation to what they did in previous years? It is almost impossible to tell because of the changeover to performance scale scores. Suffice it to say that scores were generally up in the district by about 12 percent.

We will have to wait until next year to compare scores. In the meantime, this year’s scores can be considered "Baseline" scores on which to measure subsequent year’s scores.

While student scores went up, there was a disquieting statistic. Black and Hispanic students still perform far worse than Whites and Asians.

"This is a disaster for African-American and Hispanic students," said Board of Ed member Nina Segarra, a supporter of the mayor. While decrying the stats, Segarra continues to back bilingual education, the factor that keeps Hispanic kids from achieving well on the tests.

There is one interesting statistic in the mix. It shows that there was an 18-point increase in test scores by those students who were held over last year. I an not sure what that means, but I have to assume that being left back was a wake-up call to many students who thought that they would always have a free ride even if they did no work and failed all of their subjects. They now know that it’s no longer the fact in this city. Let’s hope that the thousands of students who will be left back this year will also get the message.

There are some who believe that the tests are not valid because teachers "drill for the test" or "teach to the test."

"The problem is, the more you focus on drilling for these city tests that are not very good, the more time you take away from the literature, writing and genuine learning," says the executive director of the Educational Priorities Panel, a budget watchdog agency.

"I’m hearing from a lot of parents that there’s just too much testing," says Norman Fruchter, director of the Institute for Social Policy at New York University (and a former school superintendent). "You cannot test them so rigorously without teaching to the test, without creating a temptation for teachers to focus on the specific forms of the test, instead of narrative and plot and character."

The new school chancellor admits that the tests are "a crude device, not a perfect measure."

How then, can it be used to fire district superintendents, to fire principals, to discipline teachers?

What then, in the future? More tests. More standards that are not really standards. More pressure on principals and teachers to "perform," meaning to insure that their kids do well in the standardized tests.

Is this any way to run a railroad? You’ll have to decide that for yourself. Just take a look at the statistics.


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