Testing Concerns Keep Coming

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As math exams for the state's fourth to eighth graders begin on Wednesday, new controversy emerged about the quality of the exams and choices of the exam-maker, Pearson Education.

The Daily News reports that questions have been raised about another passage on the English exams -- this one involving a talking yam.

The state’s fourth-grade reading test included an African folk tale about a talking yam, even though versions of the story appeared in test prep books used in city schools, the Daily News has learned.

While the passage isn’t confusing like one about a talking pineapple yanked from the tests last week, critics charge that using a listening-comprehension passage that was required reading at some schools offered an unfair edge to those students.

“That’s very lazy and sloppy on the part of the testing company,” said education historian Diane Ravitch. “Two big mistakes of this kind — the talking pineapple and the talking yam — makes a strong argument for public release of all the test questions.”

The News also reported that the state had already found problems with the math exams, even before they have been administered.

On the eighth grade test, one question had no correct answer, and schools are instructed to alert students.

And on the fourth grade exam, one question has two correct answers. But in this case, schools are directed to tell students about the problem only if they ask questions about the item.

And Gotham Schools said the math errors were feeding into mounting criticism of the exams and of Pearson:

The admission comes on top of the embarrassing revelation that the state’s eighth-grade reading test included a revised and seemingly nonsensical literary passage whose moral was “pineapples don’t wear sleeves.” Together, the episodes have raised concerns about Pearson, the company that is in the first year of a five-year, $32 million contract to produce tests for New York State.

A spokesman for the department said the mistakes amounted only to typographical errors. But critics of the state’s testing program say the state is holding Pearson to a lower standard than it holds students.

“If our children make errors on these high-stakes exams, this will have negative consequences for them, as well as for their teachers and schools,” said Leonie Haimson, the parent activist who brought attention to the “Pineapple” story, in a statement. “So why should Pearson, which had nearly $2 billion in profits last year, be left off the hook for their sloppy mistakes?”

Also on the testing front, SchoolBook's Beth Fertig reported that principals are worried that new rules that require them to pay for their teachers to score the standardized exams -- during school hours -- is costing them thousands of dollars that they don't have in these austere times.

“I have five teachers missing three weeks of their teaching responsibilities, which has to hurt student performance in the long run,” a Bronx principal said.

Gotham Schools used the occasion of Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott's visit to the Mayor's Young Men's Initiative Summit to update the status of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's $130 million program to focus attention on about 315,000 young black and Latino men in New York "who are disproportionately undereducated, incarcerated and unemployed." The initiative was announced last summer by Mr. Bloomberg.

Walcott stopped by the day-long summit to represent the Department of Education, which is leading up the Expanded Success Initiative, one of several prongs of the Bloomberg administration’s Young Men’s Initiative. At a cost of $24 million, the project will bring researchers into schools that are succeeding with male students of color. But nearly nine months after it was announced, the department still hasn’t picked which schools to show off.

The city has assembled a shortlist of 81 eligible schools and will by the end of May pick 40 who want to participate — and receive a $250,000 bonus. To be eligible, a school must have a four-year graduation rate above 65 percent, an A or B on its most recent progress report, and a student body where at least 35 percent are black or Latino males and 60 percent are qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. It must also promise to implement even more aggressive strategies to help black and Latino male students.

The Gotham post included a list of the schools that are eligible for the new study. It also reported one exchange between Mr. Walcott and a participant:

Walcott championed the notion of system-wide collaboration during the question-and-answer session, after one attendee raised a question central to the Young Men’s Initiative: How will the city make a long-term impact on the grim college readiness rate for black and Latino students, which hovers around 13 percent?

“It’s really great that we’ve raised this million dollars for this mentoring,” the speaker said, “but who is looking at this as an entire system, so that in ten years we’re not back looking at how we’re going to spend a million dollars to save a generation of kids?”

“Your question is right on. It’s a collective effort of the Department of Education, the people on the stage, and the people here in the audience as far as working together,” Walcott said. “Through the Expanded Success Initiative we are identifying schools that have done the job well, particularly with black and Latino males, and black and Latino students, and replicating that success in other schools.”

One other bit of education news: Diane Ravitch, the New York University education professor and historian, started her own blog on Tuesday. As Gotham reported via Twitter, Ms. Ravitch realized that, rather than continuing to use Twitter as her 140-character-per-post outlet, she would create her own blog, which was unveiled on Tuesday with a cascade of posts. You can find it at dianeravitch.net.

As the state math exams for fourth to eighth graders begin on Wednesday -- and continue through Friday -- a Brooklyn group has organized a discussion of "High Stakes Testing" for Wednesday.

PS 261 Unite, an organization of parents, teachers and community members, will present a panel discussion and Q & A session at 6:30 p.m. in the Public School 261 Philip Livingston auditorium, 314 Pacific Street, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. Panelists include Zipporiah Mills, P.S. 261's principal; Diana Zavala, a parent, speech therapist, former teacher and member of the CHANGE THE STAKES campaign; Sam Coleman, a dual language teacher at P.S. 24; and Peg Tyre, a journalist, author and friend of SchoolBook. The event is free.