2011-05-13 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Moving Into The Mainstream
Commentary By Howard Schwach

In the April 29 edition of The Wave I wrote in this space about the millionaires that are driving the education reform movement and how they are doing more harm than good by pushing their know-nothing version of how our kids should be learning.

In fact, for years, I have been a lone voice in the wilderness, speaking out against Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s vision of education, one that includes only reading and mathematics, and which punishes and rewards based on test scores that have no validity.

Now, others are beginning to get the message, not necessarily from me, but from a realization that something is rotten in the education “business.”

In the late April column, I pointed out that people such as Bill Gates, the Broad family, the Walton family and others were pouring billions of dollars into the education business in order to destroy public unions and push their pro-charter school agenda, and that most of the assumptions they used to develop their agenda are wrongheaded.

The May 9 edition of Newsweek magazine, that high-powered bastion of liberalism, ran a seven-page story entitled, “Back to School for the Billionaires.” The drop head on the first page of the story told it all. “They hoped that their cash could transform failing classrooms. They were wrong.”

Especially in New York City, where the bulk of the billionaire’s money was parked.

“The business titans entered the education arena convinced that America’s schools would benefit greatly from the tools of the boardroom. They sought to boost incentives for improving performance, deploy new technologies and back innovators willing to shatter old orthodoxies.

“They pressed to close schools that were failing and sought to launch new, smaller ones. They sent principals to boot camp. Battling the long-time worry that the best and the brightest passed up the classroom for more lucrative professions, they opened their checkbooks to boost teacher pay.

“It was an impressive amount of industry. And, in some places it worked out – but with unanticipated complications.

“The big-money donors benefited from a well-placed ally. New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, a former Clinton White House lawyer, launched his own package of reforms that dovetailed with the billionaire’s goals – reorganizing the power structure and replacing failed schools with smaller, mission-driven ones.

“He also installed CEO-style principals and bucked criticism that his laser focus on core math and reading curricula was narrowing the scope of learning.

“The numbers began to move in the right direction, but the tactics bred resentment among some educators and parents. Klein stepped down last year with low approval ratings.

“What’s worse, last year New York State declared only a quarter of the city’s graduates college-ready, sending education officials back to the drawing board. While acknowledging gains, Gates decided to scrap his small-school project, decreeing that his initiative overall had failed to produce students who were ready for the rigors of college.”

That’s a nice way of saying that the reformers “screwed the pooch,” as a Navy pilot would say.

In fact, all of the modest gains that were achieved under Bloomberg and Klein over the past nine years were illusionary, and everybody now knows that fact.

Why?

Because New York State cooked the books beginning in 2003 so that the state could get more money from the federal No Child Left Behind act and Bloomberg could fulfill of prophecy of saving the school system and, at the same time, get reelected on his promise to improve both standardized test scores and graduation rates.

He did both, at least on paper.

There are two ways to improve test scores and graduation rates.

Improve education, so that kids learn more and can pass the tests and graduate.

Or, make the tests easier to pass and insure that more students graduate whether they deserve to or not.

Bloomberg and the state chose the second, easier path.

There is proof of that, obtained from the State Department of Education under the Freedom of Information Law.

That proof is the “cut scores” for each of the years in question.

The cut score is the percentage of questions that are correctly answered in order to reach a desired level.

Students are graded on a Level 1 to Level 4 basis.

Level 1 is the lowest, Level 4 the best. Those who achieve Level 3 are considered “proficient.”

Taking the eighth grade English Language Arts (ELA) test as an example, looking at the cut scores is instructive.

In 2009, those students who answered from 0 percent to 29 percent of the questions correctly were Level 1; 30 to 69 percent, Level 2; 70 to 97 percent, Level 3 and 98 to 100 percent, Level 4.

Under those parameters, many students achieved Level 3 and school officials crowed that their testing program was a success.

The scores were so inflated from a few years before that educational institutions such as Harvard University started looking closely at the state’s testing program. The studies found that the inflated scores were a result of muchlowered test scores. The reports embarrassed the state so much that it raised the cut score under the guise of “raising standards.”

In 2010, therefore, the percentage of right answers for Level 1 became 0 to 54 percent; Level 2, 55 to 81 percent; Level 3, 82 to 97 percent. Only Level 4 remained the same.

That is a 12 percent swing on Level 3. What that means, if there were 100 questions on the test, in 2009, a student needed to answer 70 correctly to be proficient. In 2010, the same student need to get 82 questions right to achieve the same level.

More next week.

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