2000-06-24 / Columnists

School Scope by Howard Schwach

It’s the end of another school year and it is time once again to list the debits and credits for the year.

Credit: At this time last year, the district office was in stasis, waiting for a new superintendent to be appointed. Nobody was sure what was going to happen. Today, one year later, an entire district office team is on board and that team is hard at work, attempting to address the needs of the schools.

Debit: It seems to me that the district office is growing like Topsy (Does that term date me?). Where previously there was a superintendent, a deputy superintendent and an assistant to the superintendent, there are now a superintendent, two deputy superintendents and a middle school person (who, if rumor holds true, will soon become a third deputy). In addition, the district has hired a full-time public relations person and a new attendance coordinator who, according to some who have worked with him, has no idea of what the attendance system is or how it works.

The district has also bought not one, but two vans to transport payroll, mail and other material around the district. It is in the process of hiring an "office manager" to oversee all of the new office help it is hiring. Where does all of that money come from? It seems to me that at least some of it must come from money that could be used far better in addressing the needs of the kids.

While I know how much of a pain it was for Rockaway schools to go to the district office to pick up mail and that payroll often arrived late previously, there are lots of messenger services such as Route Messenger that could be hired to deliver the payroll and the mail a lot cheaper than the cost of buying two vans, paying the insurance and hiring two drivers.

Credit: Reading scores are up in most of the district’s schools. Some of the middle schools went up 10 to 13 percent on the ELA8 test and the fourth grade scores were encouraging. I believe that this is a credit even though I am sure that the scores are meaningless as a tool to measure one school against another school. Even the chancellor recently admitted that the scores are imprecise. How then, can they be used to fire principals and excoriate teachers?

Debit: The scores in Rockaway schools, while up, are horrible. I listed some of the scores last week and if you saw them, then you know what I mean. At MS 198, for example, there is not one student in the entire school in Level 4, the top level. The other Rockaway middle schools fared only slightly better, with the percentage of students in the top level in the single digit area. MS 198 has just become a SURR School and PS 105 has become a Chancellor’s School. Since the schools in the Chancellor’s District, on the whole, did worse than the schools in traditional schools on the tests, I am certain that those scores are not going to get any better anytime soon.

At MS 198, there have been three "reorganizations" in the last three years. The school was restructured with an elementary school component (to relieve the pressure at PS 105) and funded for a program called "Ventures in Learning." The Venture program was one of those recommended by both the past chancellor and the past superintendent.

It was a total failure. Now, the school is going to be "reorganized" once again, with a program called "Success for All." SFA is one of the programs being recommended by the current chancellor and the current superintendent.

SFA is a tough program to run. It is a scripted learning program and teachers have to move away from all the ideas of "cooperative learning" and portfolios, all of the current buzzwords. SFA might just teach some kids to read. That does not mean, however, that the reading scores the school comes up with in June of 2001 will move much from what they were in June 2000.

If the majority of your students are in the low range of Level 1 and you move them to the upper range of Level 1 or even to the low range of Level 2, you have done a great job. Yet those who look at the scores without really understanding what they mean will still see the majority of students in Levels 1 and 2 and few students in Levels 3 and 4 and will brand the school as a failure.

Credit: Summer school is on line and fewer students will have to attend.

Debit: Fewer students will have to attend because it turns out that the vaunted "standards" have been more or less a sham all along.

At first, the chancellor announced that there were three "indicators" that could hold a student back. Those three indicators were attendance, standardized test scores and class grades.

Attendance went first. The original announcement said that any student who was absent more than 10 percent of the year (18 days out of 180) they would fail that indicator. That was changed shortly to "18 unexcused absences." What was an "excused absence?" The answer was that any note from the parent excused an absence. Schools were soon getting notes such as "please excuse my son’s 23 absences this year. He was sick." That was enough to excuse the absences. So much for the "attendance indicator."

Standardized tests went next. No longer was failing both the reading test of the math test enough to leave a student back. Now, the tests were a duet and failing both was like failing one. Failing both was "one indicator."

Somewhere along the way, special education students in self-contained classes were excused from meeting the "standards" as long as they had a new IEP by a certain date. Then resource room students were excused. They students with limited English proficiency (LEP students) were excused. Students who did not go to resource room, but who were "consultative model" students were excused next.

Then, it was decided by the chancellor that in non-terminal grades (anything that was not the final grade in an individual school), only language arts and mathematics would count as far as failures were concerned. Social studies and science no longer counted as major subjects.

So, a middle school seventh grade student could fail the reading standardized test, fail social studies and science and have 73 "excused absences" and he would still be promoted because he did not fail in "two indicators." In fact, that student could still have been promoted if he had failed language arts, for example, but had prepared a "standard-setting portfolio" of his work.

In one school, the original "promotion in doubt" lists held more than 800 students. Granted, that is too many, but the final list holds only 200 and that is probably too few.

Only in the terminal grades does a standard hold. Any student in a terminal grade who failed one major must go to summer school to remediate that failure. Students who failed standardized tests and who had more than 18 unexcused absences were also on the list. The parents know how to play the game, however, and in most of the schools, the file of parent notes raises the roof.

In addition, those students who are being held back in the terminal grade must prepare a final project in order to get promoted to the next grade.

That is fair and that is the way it should have been for all the grades.

That would have sent a message. The only message we are sending this year to the majority of students is that, the "new standards" not withstanding, it is business as usual.

This will be the last School Scope for the school year unless something untoward comes up during the summer. It has been fun writing for you. I hope that it has been as much fun reading what I write.

I know that I have pleased some people and angered others. That is part of the deal and I would not have it any other way.

See you in September.

Peace and safe home.

 


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