2006-03-24 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

By Howard Schwach

AFTER BLOOMBERG The word is in from on high and it has become the gospel for education in America.

Good testing makes good education. At least, that's what our education czar believes.

U. S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who believes strongly that Intelligent Design should be taught in all schools, has a new mantra.

"Good education has always been about good testing," she told a group of New Yorkers last week. "Tests are based on skills the kids need and that is what teachers should be teaching," she said.

Unfortunately, that is all a crock of you-know-what, but it is a crock that all of the states are forced to swallow if they want much-needed federal money to fund their schools.

The feds and the progressive schools of education are in the driver's seat and, unfortunately, none of them know how to drive.

The President's "No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) mandates high-stakes tests for students in grades three through 12.

Those tests decide whether or not a student gets promoted, but the aggregate scores of all the students in a district (or, a city) rank those school units in such a way as to label some as wonderful and many more as "failing."

Don't get me wrong. I like tests. I was a teacher for more than 30 years and have devised, given and marked literally thousands of tests over those years.

The tests were skill-based and they were content-based and they tested what they students could do and what they learned in my classroom. I would be the last one to say that tests are not necessary and that they are not a measure of achievement.

Having said that, however, I would never have used valuable class time where skills were addressed and vital content information was taught on teaching the kids how to take a test. That is what is happening today.

In a race to get even higher scores to "prove" that the mayor is right in his education strategies, content area has been thrown out the window and teaching test-taking skills has become the be-all and end-all of education.

Good education is not about good tests, Margaret. Good education is about teaching students content information and skills.

The testing program is secondary, as way of checking to make sure the students are learning. Tests are not the primary reason for being in the classroom, learning is and that is no longer true in our city.

As a measure of how much teaching testing skills has overtaken teaching that vital content area information, take a look at two middle school homeroom programs, one prior to the Bloomberg administration's takeover and one after.

Remember, there are 40 periods in a week - eight periods times five days. Five of those periods are lunch periods, leaving 35 periods each week for teaching content and skills.

State mandates require one unit (four times a week) of "major" subjects, PE three times a week, one unit of Foreign Language prior to the end of the eighth grade and one unit of Technology prior to the end of the eighth grade.

Under the state mandates and the Carnegie Model that our middle schools followed prior to Bloomberg, each student typically took 25 periods of major subjects, ten of minor subjects and five of lunch.

That all changed under Bloomberg and NCLB, however.

It does not take much to see the difference. A much larger portion of each school day is spent on teaching Literacy (Language Arts) and Mathematics, the subjects addressed by the high-stakes testing. In addition, five periods of test-taking skills, most often from the Kaplan organization has been added. Since the number of periods each day is finite, something had to go and what went is Science, Social Studies and minor' subjects, such as computer, art and music.

In fact, the state education department has recently sued the city for not meeting its subject area mandates.

The fact that students no longer learn about their heritage or about their government seems not to worry the city educational officials at all. As long as the test scores are up, that's all that counts.

The testing movement, however, has drawn fierce opposition from both parents and teachers groups. Their argument, and a correct one, is that our schools have become "testing factories" where students really aren't learning much of anything except how to take a test. One newspaper addressing the question wrote, "Many educators, including Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, support testing."

What the paper is forgetting is that Klein is not an educator - he's a lawyer who was chosen to run the largest education system in the nation but has no educational credentials of his own.

Klein said, "While tests may not always be a perfect measure of progress, in the end I am convinced that they are the best we have." In the same memo to principals, he urged them to have teachers "drill students for state exams."

That brought a laugh and a howl from UFT president Randi Weingarten, whose membership knows that drilling for a test does not mean education. In fact "drilling" went out years ago. Some of it was good (learn your multipication tables), some of it was not so good (complete the rexo sheet and hand it in at the end of the period). This is no time however, to go back to the bad old days of drill, chalk and talk and repetitive material. For years our students in high school have been taught to the Regents and there-by missed out on lots of education. Now, that is happening in elementary and middle schools as well "Kids lose out," she said in response to the Klein memo, "when every bit of focus is simply on how high you can make the English and Mathematics scores."


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