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Farewell to Michael Winerip

Monday, June 11, 2012 - 08:53 AM

In his last "On Education'' column, Michael Winerip of The New York Times wrote on Monday about what happened when state officials in Florida changed the way they graded standardized state tests last month, tests that schools had already taken and for which they had spent months preparing their students. Under the new grading system, scores in the 2012 writing test — given to 4th, 8th and 10th graders — plummeted in all districts, Mr. Winerip wrote. "Only 27 percent of Florida’s fourth graders were rated proficient, compared with 81 percent the year before. In Seminole, 30 percent were proficient, down from 83 percent.''

The numbers fell so drastically because, as announced last summer, state officials toughened the standards, paying more attention to grammar and spelling as well as to the factual accuracy of supporting details in essays.

But they did not change the scoring system, resulting in a public relations disaster.

What to do?

They could live with the results — that after 15 years of education reform, three-fourths of Florida children could not write. Or they could scale the results upward after the fact, an embarrassment, but people probably would not be so angry if they had good scores.

The high failure rate was based on measuring proficiency as a score of at least 4.

First, the state considered lowering the cutoff to 3.5.

That would have resulted in a passage rate of about 50 percent. People would probably still be angry.

So on May 15, Florida’s education commissioner, Gerard Robinson, held an emergency conference call with State Education Board members, while 800 school administrators from all over Florida listened in. The board voted to lower the cutoff to 3.

Presto! Problem solved. The proficiency rate for fourth graders was now exactly what it had been in the 2010-11 school year, 81 percent.

For 10th graders, the results actually improved, to 84 percent from 80 percent, meaning scores plummeted but proficiency increased.

Mr. Winerip said the changes in grading "may be the worst breakdown in 15 years of state testing.'' And while the state did not assign blame to anyone, one result has been that a growing number of educators in Florida are joining anti-test movements. One board member even took the writing test himself, flunked it, and has been going around telling people that the test is a poor measure of children's writing abilities.

Mr. Winerip, who has been keeping an eye on education trends, off and on, since the early 1990s, is moving on to another assignment. He said this about his work:

This is my last education column. Again. The first time, in the early 1990s, politicians wanted to make our system more like Japan’s. (This was right before the Japanese economic collapse.)

A decade later, they devised a system to punish teachers if every child in America wasn’t academically proficient. Now they’re developing a standardized test to evaluate high school band teachers. And through it all, teachers have continued to educate children, and children have continued to learn.

Good luck, Mr. Winerip. We at SchoolBook will miss your insights on education.

Over the weekend, there were other probing education stories in the media. Alan Schwarz wrote in The Times that pressure over grades and competition for college admissions is encouraging students to abuse prescription stimulants. He interviewed students, parents and doctors for his article.

“Everyone in school either has a prescription or has a friend who does,” one boy told him.

Students told him they were getting their pills from friends, buying them from student dealers or faking symptoms so their parents get them prescriptions. Accompanying the article is a chart listing the most popular of these so-called study drugs.

The Education Department is dissolving a school network after The Daily News reported that the head of the network was living with a principal she oversaw. The leader, Nichele Manning-Andrews, headed a network of several schools in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens.

For a roundup of other school news, turn to Gotham Schools's Rise and Shine.

This week, decision letters for public school pre-K applicants will be mailed out to parents. The pre-registration period for families is from June 12 through 22. After offers are distributed in June, pre-K admissions will be managed by schools. For more information, review the Department of Education's Pre-Kindergarten Admissions Memo.

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