2001-03-24 / Columnists

School Scope

I have always believed that the scores on standardized reading and math tests do not mean as much as people think that they mean.

The tests are designed to indicate how individual students are performing on a continuum of reading skills. They are not, I have found, even a good indicator of individual skills.

Every teacher has seen kids who ace the standardized reading tests yet cannot read grade level texts. They have also seen countless other kids who score poorly on the tests yet do well when asked to read grade level material.

Our newly minted ideas of accountability, however, demand that we use these tests in all sorts of ways for which they were not designed.

We use the tests to decide whether an individual child deserves to be promoted. We use the tests to rate one school against another, to tell whether a school is a "good school" or a "bad school." If the mayor has his way, we will use the tests to decide whether individual teachers deserve a raise or not.

While the use of the test to decide whether individual students should be promoted is debatable, their use to "rate" schools or to remunerate individual teachers is pure disingenuous.

I have said this before and I probably will say it again next year when the test scores are released with much fanfare by the daily papers.

It’s the kids, stupid!

Take a look at the top 10 elementary schools in the city. Four of them are in the richest reaches of Manhattan. Four others are in northern Queens, the richest area of the city outside of Manhattan. In each of those cases, the schools are filled with upper middle-class and middle-class students. Of the remaining two schools, one is in Riverdale (the Bronx’s only middle-class area) and the other is in the largely Asian part of Manhattan.

Now take a look at the 10 lowest performing elementary schools in the city. Four of them are in the Chancellor’s District. That means the schools, even with an amazing array of extra funds and programs, are still low performing years after they were taken over by the chancellor. Another five are in the poorest districts in the Bronx. The remaining school is in the upper reaches of Manhattan.

The middle schools break out much the same way. The schools with middle class and upper middle class kids do well and those with poor, minority kids do not.

There are some who would say that those schools do worse because they get fewer resources, but the fact is that those schools get extra resources and still cannot do much.

Let’s posit a switch. Take all of the teachers and administrators from PS 188 in Flushing where more than 90 percent of the students are reading above grade level and put them in CS 57 in the Bronx (where only 10.5 percent of the students are reading on grade level).

What would happen to those two schools? I do not think that much would change.

The kids in PS 188 would benefit from the experience of the teachers and administrators who come from CS 57 and the morale of the staff would certainly improve. Student scores on standardized tests would stay on track.

The kids in CS 57 would now have the teachers and administrators from the "best" school in Queens. Would their scores go up? I would bet that they would not. The only change would be that most of the PS 188 teachers would run from the CS 57 building screaming and would quickly retire or find jobs in Nassau County. That is what is happening to teachers from those buildings on a regular basis in any case.

It’s the kids, stupid!

One only has to take a look at the schools in this district to see the pattern described above. Understand that schools are rated now on a complex formula. Without going into how that formula is worked out, suffice it to say that the magic number is 140. Schools below that number are "not meeting standards," while schools above that number are "meeting standards."

PS 43, for example, is in Edgemere. Its score on the fourth grade reading test was 105. PS 106 is only seven blocks away from PS 43, but it houses one of the district Astre programs for gifted students. Its score was 125. Are the teachers and administrators at PS 106 that different from those at PS 43 that it would account for the 20-point differential? You decide.

PS 114 is in Neponsit. Its score is 176. Are the teachers and administrators at PS 114 71 points better than those at PS 43 or are the kids who go to the school the difference? You decide. PS 47 is in Broad Channel. Its score is 160. You get the picture.

PS 114, by the way, once had better scores but that was before the 60 kids with the highest scores left the district to go to magnet schools in District 21 in Brooklyn. Two of those schools were among the 10 highest scoring schools in the city and they have our Rockaway kids to thank for the designation.

Few of our middle schools are showing any gains and some are actually slipping as students leave the district schools to run to private and parochial schools and to middle schools in other districts.

On the eighth grade tests, IS 53 went from 96 last year to 84 this year, despite the fact that the district forced the principal to resign and then brought in a District 15 principal to run the school. MS 180 remained at 94 for both years, but the best and the brightest continue to vote with their feet and not attend the school. The score at MS 198, a school that has become a SURR school, actually went up from 57 to 75. That is a little like somebody saying that it has gone from horrible to bad.

Every one of the mainland schools went down from last year to this year.

MS 202 went from 123 to 99. MS 210 went from 118 to 116. MS 226 went from 134 to 119.

While everybody involved with the system knows that it was a political move, not an educational one, the last superintendent, Brenda Isaacs, was forced to leave because "reading scores went down."

Now we have a situation where middle school reading scores have gone down in this district each year since Matt Bromme became the superintendent.

I am not saying it is Bromme’s fault, because it is the kids, not the teachers or the administrators who dictate the reading scores and community and familial forces more than school forces that dictate those student’s scores.

There are other factors that affect the scores: teacher morale, an influx of immigrant students, "better" students leaving the school, etc.

If, however, the tests are the way we are going to "keep score" and administrators, teachers and schools are going to be punished for low scores, then the superintendent has to be judged by the same standards.

To be fair, I have to note that elementary scores are up. In one school, the score went from 55 to 105. In another school the scores went from 126 to 160. I personally find it hard to believe jumps such as those. It makes me start thinking about the days when the district put so much pressure on school staffs to raise scores that some began cooking the books to make it look better for the school and for the district.

I am not saying that such a thing happened in those schools. I am just saying that, given the same population, a jump of 50 points is extraordinary.


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