2011-05-20 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

The Gang(s) That Couldn’t Shoot Straight
Commentary By Howard Schwach

When Jimmy Breslin wrote his novel about the Italian mob and called it the “Gang who Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” he defined the modern buzzwords for anybody who was so bad at their job that they couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time.

Today, those buzzwords define both the New York State and New Your City Departments of Education.

Last week, I ended my column with some statistics about the high-stakes standardized tests, designed and monitored by the state and used by Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his minions for everything from deciding on promotion to what school should be closed to what teachers should be retained.

The fact that the state and city have made the test into a sham has not deterred them from pushing forward with using the test scores for all sorts of nefarious deeds.

When you and I were young, and the city school provided an education rather than a test score profile, tests meant something.

You took them weekly or monthly in each class and you also had to take a standardized test once a year that was used for something vaguely called “tracking.”

If you got a 65 on a test, you were barely passing. Less than 65, and you drew an F, sure to draw the ire of your parents.

If you got more than 95, you were an A student and got some extra ice cream with dinner.

Today, that’s all gone.

Students are rated on levels, Level 1 to Level 4.

Level 1 is the worst, the equivalent of an F.

Level 2 is “below standard.”

Level 3 is “proficient.”

Level 4 is “meeting standards.”

At least this week, that’s what they mean.

If they mean anything at all.

When Bloomberg took over, he pledged that he would save the public school system or he would leave office.

Instead, he destroyed the public school system, turning the keys to the kingdom over to his millionaire buddies and their charter schools. His laser focus on test scores in the two highstakes test areas – English Language Arts and Mathematics, dictated that other important subjects such as social studies, science, foreign language, art, music, technology and physical education, would be shunted aside and left to die on a siding somewhere.

At the same time, the federal No Child Left Behind law promised untold wealth to school systems that would do the law’s bidding and make “accountability” rather than “education” the key word for all the nation’s schools.

How do you raise both test scores and graduation rates in order to get more money from the feds (state goal) or make it look as if your educational program is a smash hit (Bloomberg’s goal)?

You cook the books to make it look as if test scores have risen precipitously and that the graduation rate has moved on up enough to keep the feds and the electorate happy.

Let’s think of the standardized tests as an old-fashioned test for a moment, with 100 questions.

Get 65 percent of the questions right, and you pass, less and you fail.

Right? Wrong!

For example, look at the 2009 and 2010 seventh grade ELA tests.

From 2001 to 2009, the cut score – the percentage of right answers necessary to reach an educational level from 1 to 4 – was lowered each year, making it substantially easier to pass the test each year.

In 2010, however, the state was embarrassed by a report that pointed out that it was cooking the books and that the tests were “effectively meaningless as an education tool.”

So they raised the cut score to 2001 levels, and everybody took a nose dive.

In 2009, for example, students who answered from 0 to 21 percent of the questions correctly fell into Level 1. Those who answered from 22 to 66 percent of the questions right were Level 2. Those who answered from 67 to 97 percent were “proficient.” Can you imagine your parents calling you proficient if you came home with a 67 on a test?

Only those who answered more than 97 percent of the questions correctly were on Level 4, but it didn’t matter, because Levels 3 and 4 were lumped together to denote “on grade level.” In 2009, that meant any student who answered between 67 and 100 percent of the questions correctly.

In 2010, when the cut score was put back were it should have stayed in the first place if education were really important, those who answered from 0 to 58 percent became Level 1. Those who answered 59-84 percent of the questions were Level 2, from 85 to 97 percent were Level 3 and from 98 to 100 Percent were Level 4.

That meant that students who achieved between 85 percent and 100 percent were at grade level.

Quite a difference on the low end. In 2009, 67 percent gets you to grade level. In 2010, 85 percent gets you to grade level, a 19 point shift that makes all the difference.

The mayor and the state education commissioner, who resigned as soon as he could without looking like he was ducking out of town because of the cooked books, spun the drop in their own inimitable way.

“The state raised its standard, and we are glad that it did, because it holds our students to a higher standard,” said then Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein just before he ducked out of town to work for an education- al company tied to Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the New York Post.

So much for credibility.

Everybody has now caught on to the mayor’s game.

On a recent Quinnipiac poll, parents with kids in public schools rejected Bloomberg’s stewardship of the schools by 78 to 20 percent. Voters without kids rejected Bloomberg by 64 to 36 percent.

Voters by 57 to 23 percent said that Bloomberg has been more of a failure than a success in the education area. The remaining voters said that either they had no opinion or didn’t care.

Actually, I took part in the telephone survey, the first time that Quinnipiac called me. Usually, they do not allow media people to take part in their surveys, but this time, they did not ask.

Who is Bloomberg kidding when he says that he wants his legacy to be as the best mayor in New York City history? Apparently very few people.

Next week, more on graduation rates and DOE scams.

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