Testing, Tutoring and Worrying Occupy City School Parents

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Testing, striving and tutoring are very much in the news on this warm April day, the first back from spring break for public school students and staff.

SchoolBook's Anna M. Phillips has a report in The New York Times on Monday about the rise in tutoring for elementary school students, in preparation for the standardized exams, which begin this week.

In still another sign of the emerging importance of these exams, parents are recognizing that high scores are a pathway to a strong middle school, and so are signing their third and fourth graders to be tutored. In fact, many children spent spring break week in tutoring services and, according to InsideSchools, some public elementary schools -- Public School 189 Lincoln Terrace in Crown Heights, P.S. 230 Doris L. Cohen in Kensington, P.S. 9 Teunis G. Bergen in Prospect Heights, P.S. 261 Philip Livingston in Boerum Hill, all in Brooklyn -- offered preparation classes during the vacation.

As The Times reports:

This elbows-out and wallets-open competition for top middle schools is most apparent in Manhattan, where a boom in development has carried in a flood of elementary- and middle-school-age children. Since 2002, four new schools serving the middle grades have opened in District 2, which runs from the Upper East Side to Lower Manhattan, and others have expanded, according to the city. But that has not cooled the contest over selective middle schools like the Salk School of Science, which received 777 applications for 146 seats last year.

Many parents, teachers and other educators complain that students already spend too much time prepping for the standardized exams. And the city's Department of Education agrees that there is plenty of classroom preparation going on.

“Students at schools with strong teaching and a rich curriculum should be well prepared for the annual exams,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer. “At the same time, we do encourage families to reinforce what students learn in the classroom with activities like reading, writing and solving complex problems.”

But the city has not tried to discourage private tutoring -- "nor," The Times says, "would officials say whether they are concerned about the possibility that it could give wealthier students an unfair advantage in middle school admissions."

Which brings us to the second major story of the weekend related to testing and striving: the enormous increase in students who qualify for gifted-and-talented programs for next school year. As Anna Phillips reported in Saturday's Times:

Nearly 5,000 children qualified for gifted and talented kindergarten seats in New York City public schools in the fall, 22 percent more than last year and more than double the number four years ago, setting off a fierce competition for the most sought-after programs in the system.

Why the huge increase? The city says that more middle- and upper middle-class families are staying in the city, and more parents are having their children tested for gifted and talented programs. And, yes, tutoring is clearly another factor in the rise in children's scores.

Robin Aronow, an admissions consultant in Manhattan, said she could not attribute all of the increase to test preparation, “but it certainly seems to be having an influence.”

“There are more and more people who are putting their kids through some sort of test preparation, whether it’s buying the materials or using the test-prep companies,” she said. “I think the nursery schools have begun to integrate some of the materials into their classes as well.”

The pattern of scoring reinforces concerns that the city is increasingly becoming a system of have and have-nots. As Gotham Schools reports:

.. the number of children qualifying in the city’s poorest districts has actually fallen in recent years.

In four districts where qualifying scores have historically been so scarce that the city has not opened gifted programs, just 52 children scored high enough to make them eligible for admission.

In any case, the next few months are going to be tense for many city school parents, as they await word on whether their child was accepted into one of the vaunted citywide G&T; programs, or into school-based programs -- or not at all.

Meanwhile, the biggest beneficiary of all this test stress? Tutoring companies.

Also in the news this Monday, one more testing tale: educators are worrying that this year's new requirement that seniors pass five Regents exams to qualify for graduation could mean lower graduation rates, reversing the city's improvement in that important measure of success. According to the New York Post:

The city’s rising four-year graduation rate hit a high of 65.1 percent in 2010 — but that was when students only had to pass three of five Regents exams with high marks.

With the old passing mark of 55 (out of 100) now raised to 65 on all exams, educators are fearful that graduation rates could drop significantly if students can’t overcome the world history hurdle.

“We’re definitely concerned ... we have a much higher percentage of seniors where Global History is holding them back from graduating,” said one Manhattan principal. “It’s definitely going to be a real challenge.”

Also this weekend: CBS local news reports that the city is working on its social media policy for teachers and other school personnel -- but doesn't say when. The city has been promising new guidelines since last year.

The Daily News reported over the weekend that the office of special investigations for city schools is dealing with so many cases that it needs to hire more investigators.

Gotham Schools' Rise & Shine morning post has links to even more news about schools and education in New York City from the weekend.

On this Monday, the Flushing High School community is marking its return from vacation with a rally at 9:30 a.m. to protest the school's planned closing. According to a news release: "The City's Department of Education (DOE) is unfairly and arbitrarily closing Flushing HS at the end of this school year -- despite significant improvement, including a 9th grade promotion rate increase from 20% to 60% over a two-year period. Flushing HS has historic significance to our community: we established the City's first free public high school in 1875 and, soon after, Flushing HS became the first racially-integrated public school in New York. By closing our school, the DOE is challenging our deeply-held democratic commitmthent to educating all people." The city will hold a hearing on the closing at the high school on Wednesday.