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High-Stakes Testing

John Tarleton Feb 17, 2004

Critics of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to impose high stakes testing on third graders are increasingly concerned that New York’s Smallest are being sacrificed to satisfy the mayor’s political agenda.

“It’s a gimmick,” says Paula Rogovin, who teaches first grade in Manhattan. “This doesn’t give the child a love of learning. And it certainly doesn’t give the teacher a love of teaching.”

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, school funding is tied to how well fourth graders perform on standardized tests. Bloomberg’s political fortunes will receive a boost if he can point to higher fourth grade test scores when he runs for re-election in 2005.

“We see [the third grade tests] as a ploy to artificially boost the scores of the next crop of fourth graders,” says Keith Catone, a Bronx social studies teacher.

Third graders who receive a “1” on a scale of 1-4 on the proposed standardized tests in English or Math would have to attend a special summer school program or be held back. Classroom work, attendance and individual learning styles will not be considered in promotion. As many as 15,000 third graders may be held back this year alone. The plan will cost millions to implement and comes at a time when average class sizes have swelled in the city’s grade schools for the first time in eight years.

“I see very little in this that is good for the development of the child,” says Jeremy Kamps, a third grade teacher at PS 152 in Washington Heights. “To put all the eggs in ,that one basket, penalizes creative thinkers and doesn’t tell
the whole story.”

In the two and a half months leading up to last year’s tests (which were high stakes in some schools but not others), Kamps says he spent up to 75 percent of his teaching time doing test prep. He said the pressure associated with the tests inevitably impacts students.

“I’m not sure they know what a test means,” Kamps says. “It’s basically a big threat to them levied by someone without a name or a face.”

Frustration with the proposed changes boiled over at the Feb. 9 meeting of the Panel for Education Policy (PEP), the Mayor’s handpicked successor to the city Board of Education.

“The school districts in Kabul and Baghdad will recover faster than this one will from what’s been done to it,” said Norman Scott, a retired teacher and member of a dissident caucus inside the United Federation of Teachers.

“This is a setup,” said Amy Valez, a former District 1 school board member. “They are businessmen who want to say, ‘we tried everything and failed’ and then hand over the schools to private business.”

Calling critics’ charges “unsupported, unfounded and even irresponsible,” Schools Chancellor Joel Klein defended the tests as essential to school reform. “If we don’t get serious in the early grades and keep on doing what we’ve done, kids will fall further and further behind.”

Opponents of Klein and Bloomberg’s approach note criticism comes from many quarters, including the American Educational Research Association, the National Board on Educational Testing and the National Council on Measurement in Education, as well as Harcourt and CTB McGraw-Hill, the companies that produce standardized tests. “Achievement test scores may certainly enter into a promotion or retention decision,” says Harcourt, which provides the city’s third grade reading exam. “However, they should be just one of the many factors considered and probably should receive less weight than factors such as teacher observation, day-to-day classroom performance maturity level, and attitude.”

Testing critics also point out that a number of studies done over the past quarter century all show that holding children back at an early age often has a devastating emotional impact and significantly increases the chance they will later drop out.