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Educators Debate Stark Decline in Test Scores

Wednesday, August 07, 2013 - 04:57 PM

Mayor Bloomberg announces results of new, more rigorous state exams with state and city education officials (Spencer T. Tucker/Flickr)

New York City educators took stock of their school test scores on Wednesday as news of the significant drop rippled across New York State's school districts. For many it was a milestone moment, marking a new way to assess students but one that reignited a familiar debate about the role of standardized testing in the classroom. 

The conversations filled the social media airwaves. One teacher on Twitter said she was concerned what the lower scores may mean for her tenure chances. "I know it's important to show growth, but how can I with these new tests?" she asked.

Amy Hom, principal of P.S. 1 in Manhattan's Chinatown said that overall her school's test results did not drop as much as the citywide average but the results were still much lower than her students are used to. Thirty seven percent of her students were considered proficient in English, on average, and almost 53 percent met the proficiency standard for math.

"It's hard to accept, of course. But this is where we're at," Hom told WNYC. "It's a baseline data. so that hopefully next year we'll be smarter about it and do better."

Anthony Armstrong is the principal of J.H.S. 74 Nathaniel Hawthorne which fared well. Almost 70 percent of his students were proficient in math and almost 61 percent passed the English tests. Still, he was not happy.

"I'm disappointed that we went down. I know that the context of its reality is allegedly strong compared to the majority of the schools but in actuality I am disappointed," Armstrong said, adding that he wanted more details.

"One of the things I'm wondering is the time factor, specifically in ELA. Some of the feedback I received from the students and teachers were that some of the children were not able to complete the exam in time," he said. "I don't know if that was a factor with the mathematics or not. I don't have enough information yet."

Principal Justin Berman defied the downward trend. His school, I.S. 187 Christa McCauliffe, is a gifted and talented school where 99 percent of the middle school students passed the math tests and 94 percent passed the English tests. His secret? Engage children with high-level activities and thought-provoking questions.

“Part of it, too, was there was a lot of opportunity for people to get really stressed out about these tests and I tried really hard not to let that get to the kids and not to let it get to the teachers,” Berman said.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said New York teachers were leading the way for all 45 states and the District of Columbia that have adopted the Common Core learning standards. New York is only the second of those states to administer the new tests.

"You are trailblazers in this country’s transition to Common Core standards, and I’m continually impressed by your commitment to strengthening instruction and better serving all of our students," he said.

One teacher, Katie Lapham, said the test scores were meaningless to her. She teaches English Language Learners at P.S. 214 in Brooklyn where 23 percent of the students passed the English tests and 31 percent were proficient in math.

"The English Language Arts test was too long and not developmentally appropriate, especially for newcomers who are required to take the ELA after just one year in the system," she wrote to WNYC. "I base my students' ability to think critically and to communicate clearly - using evidence and details - on the work we do in the classroom. Their written responses to our meaningful units of study are much more accurate indicators of skills and knowledge acquired than standardized tests."

State Education Commissioner John King warned not to use the scores against educators.

"There may be some who would try to use today's results to try to attack principals and teachers. That would be wrong. The results today are not a critique of past efforts," King said. "They establish a new baseline for evaluating student performance going forward."

Retired teacher Portia Armstrong joined a rally on Wednesday against the over-reliance on testing.

"We're not against raising the standards," she said. "But if our children were being prepared and our curriculum was well-rounded and rich it shouldn't have affected our children the way it has."

She was referring to the fact that the tests came before the training, much to the frustration of city teachers and principals. President of the teachers union, Michael Mulgrew, said his members have been asking for curriculum and professional development for years.

"Last year we became more and more vocal," he said. "And we still, standing here today in August, we still have not been supplied a curriculum."

Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College-Columbia University, sounded a note of caution, and calm. 

As always, I think that parents should take the state test scores with a grain of salt, and treat them as one of many bits of information about their child, his or her teachers, and his or her school. The build-up to the release of these tests has been incredible;  it's like today is Super Bowl Sunday. Let's have a reality check:  The state tests are just a small sample of what we want children to learn in school, and we shouldn't allow them to take on too much importance.
"The build-up to the release of these tests has been incredible;  it's like today is Super Bowl Sunday," he said. "Let's have a reality check: the state tests are just a small sample of what we want children to learn in school, and we shouldn't allow them to take on too much importance."
Meanwhile, for those who want more information about the test themselves, Gotham Schools posted some of the test questions. More questions are available on the state's website EngageNY.

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