2001-01-20 / Columnists

School Scope

School Scope

Last week’s column that posited the idea that test scores rather than education has become the be all and end all in this city has caused lots of reaction from school board members, parents and teachers.

That surprised me somewhat, because I thought of that column as a necessary, albeit somewhat boring topic.

Obviously, it has touched a nerve with many people.

"Your column in today’s paper was right on line, " one long-time school board member e-mailed. "There has been a good deal of positive press recently given to whatever district in Harlem where the kids went to school during vacation and on Saturdays in order to be prepped for the upcoming reading test. This sickens me. I think that it is great that the kids spend extra time in school, but let’s teach them something tangible, not how to take a test. In my opinion, that is nothing different that a Kaplan’s SAT class."

"I teach a fourth grade class in Rockaway, and I would bet that I spend more than a third of my time teaching students how to take the test and doing test prep material" a teacher e-mailed. "I understand that lots of things depend on how well my kids do on the test, including whether my principal keeps her job, but I have to question taking all of that time from teaching the material that I am supposed to be teaching."

Those e-mails are representative of the general feeling that the standardized tests have become too important and that "teaching to the test" has become more prevalent in our schools than educating students.

There is ample evidence of that fact in our district. Tens of thousands of dollars are spent on "test prep" materials that are designed to teach students how to take a particular test. There are materials specific to the state’s reading and math tests, to the new social studies and science tests and to citywide standardized tests. They all contain tips on taking the test, on completing "sample questions," and on studying for the test. Lots of classroom time is spent on completing these materials.

Practice tests are given a number of times during the year. These tests are given "under actual test conditions," including special test schedules and constant mentions that it is important that students consider these tests as if they "were the actual test." Any teacher will tell you that there are lots of disruptions on a "practice test day," and question why so much time must be taken with test prep, with test practice and then with marking the practice test.

"If there were some way the practice tests could be used to help us in the classroom, I would understand their use, "a middle school teacher says, "but we just mark them and pass them on to supervisors or store them away after they are marked. They seem to serve no educational purpose other than prepping the kids for the ‘real’ test."

Of course, we all know the reason why so much time is taken prepping for the tests. It is because the tests have become high-stakes, do or die indications of how well students are doing in any particular district, in any particular school.

The mayor, of course, wants to raise the stakes even more by predicating salary raises on test scores. That, however, is the mayor and we can discount anything he says about education.

The fact is that the standardized test scores (particularly the fourth and eighth grade scores) are important to many groups.

They are important to the politicians who fund the schools, particularly now that a judge has ruled that education funding has been disproportionate all of these years. Politicians will make education a seminal issue and will get elected or dumped based on test scores in the schools in their districts.

They are important to school superintendents. You will remember that Brenda Isaacs was supposedly removed from her superintendency because of poor test scores in the district. The fact that a number of superintendents had far poorer scores in their districts did not deter the chancellor from removing her. Superintendents now serve at the whim of the chancellor and they have a mandate to get scores up in their districts, or else.

They are important to school principals. Principals gave up their tenure for a large chunk of change and now serve almost at the whim of their superintendents. Sure, there has to be a hearing, but the stats can almost always be used to prove that the principal has not done a good job. Therefore, principals serve at the whim of the superintendent and can be removed if the test scores do not go up.

They are important to assistant principals, especially the majority administrators who have less then five years in their position and can be dumped back to teacher at the whim of the principal and the superintendent. If scores go down, they are the first to go and they know it. Therefore, they put unnatural pressure on teachers to get the scores up.

They are important to teachers, who are at the bottom of the food chain. Teachers may be working with students who are reading on a low Level I, but they are still told that it is their responsibility to get them to Level II, something that everybody knows is not within the realm of possibility.

It is now important to kids. Most of them will be promoted no matter what they do on the tests and they know it.

They are important to some parents who wrongly use them as an indication of what a school is really about. The fact is, there is real education going on in lots of classrooms in schools where the test scores are low and there is no education at all going on in some classrooms in schools that have high reading scores. Education is a function of the teacher and the students and has little to do with school wide reading scores.

Last week I asked what education was really all about. Howard Gardner posited one answer.

There is, of course, some agreement on learning basic skills such as making change and reading a map, reading and understanding a book, critical reading and an ability to form judgments and opinions independently.

The New York Times recently did an article entitled "What Kind of Education is Adequate? It Depends." The articles writer, Randal Archibold, asked a number of people the kind of people they considered to be educated.

Leon Botsetin is the president of Bard College. He says, "A good education teaches you how to ask a question. It’s knowing what you do not know, the skills of critical thought."

Paul LeClerc is the president of the New York Public Library. "Ideally, one should know who Shakespeare was and why he was important to us. At the same time, one should know who Toni Morrison is and why her voice and take on America are important to us."

Michael Goldstein is the head of a charter school in Boston. He says that an educated person today can "write and e-mail a persuasive, three-paragraph letter to the editor about voting improprieties in your local district; research on line and analyze the statistical difference between Pat Buchanan’s vote totals during the ’96 and ’00 elections; read and comprehend the ‘no cell phone’ sign at restaurants."

Robert Silvers is the editor of the New York Review of Books. He says that an intellectual person "acquires some intellectual curiosity about learning more and exploring the possibilities of science and the understanding you get from literature and the arts."

Many people have an idea of what an educated person should be able to do what he or she should know. An entire book, The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, by three educators, discussed the facts that an educated person should know. Knowing what skills an educated person should have is a little more complicated.

In any case, however, those skills do not include knowing how to take a test and that is what we are trying to teach our students (mostly without success) in today’s classrooms.

Students today have to read 25 books to meet the new standards. They have to "address literature." They have to "create a persona" when they write.

The standards are generally benign, but what we teach to reach those standards is often not so.

Perhaps it is time for a real change.

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