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Testing Fails Alternative Schools

Andy Harris Jun 16, 2004

While students across New York State prepared for hours of Regents exams, students at Beacon High School sat down for personal interviews with their teachers.

Science students described the forces at work in a roller coaster model they built. Foreign-language students gave presentations in French about what they would do in three days in Paris. And students in Nathan Turner’s Contemporary America class talked about their research into issues like gun control and drug addiction.

Most public schools rely on the state-mandated Regents exams to evaluate students. But Beacon, located in Manhattan, is one of 28 alternative high schools in the state participating in the Performance Standards Consortium’s (PSC) system of evaluation. These schools use a mix of student portfolios, teacher evaluations, and oral and written examinations to assess students.

The alternative schools were granted a waiver from the Regents in 1995. However, current Commissioner Richard Mills revoked this waiver in 2001. Eleventh grade students in performance standard schools will be the first ones required to pass all five Regents exams in order to graduate. Ironically, forcing these students to pass the Regents may undermine the performance the standardized testing is said to promote.

The alternative high schools have more poor students, more students of color and more students considered to be in danger of dropping out than the school system as a whole, yet their dropout rate is less than half the statewide average. In addition, the schools send 91 percent of their students to college, as opposed to the city average of 62.6 percent.

But teachers and students are struggling to find the time to prepare for the Regents while following the performance assessment model. Many PSC schools have had to change their curricula, and several schools have dropped out of the consortium since their waiver was revoked.

Advocates of performance standards argue that their standards are higher than those of the Regents, evaluating a deeper kind of knowledge and holding students more accountable for their own development.

“If a student can sit in front of a college professor they’ve never seen before and defend their work, you know they’re ready for college,” says Nathan Turner, who teaches history at Beacon.

TEACHING TO THE TEST

High stakes testing – the practice of basing educational decisions on a single test score – has become common across the country during the last decade. As test results determine more and more aspects of a school, including teachers’ jobs and school funding, a culture of “teaching to the test” has become the norm.

“For some schools, test scores have become more important than students,” says PSC Co-Chair Ann Cook.

Dropout rates have increased in many states since they moved to high-stakes testing, and students are being encouraged to transfer to GED programs as early as the eighth grade. In New York, the four-year graduation rate dropped from 66 percent to less than 58 percent since the late eighties and the number of New York City youth enrolled in GED programs increased by nearly 50 percent in the past two years.

Statewide, around 35 percent of black and Latino students graduate in four years as opposed to 75 percent of white students, the largest gap in the nation. Jane Hirschmann, co-chair of Time Out From Testing, a statewide coalition that advocates the abolition of high-stakes testing, says the tests are reminiscent of the educational discrimination challenged in Brown v. Board of Education.

TESTING FACTORIES

All of these statistics, says Cook, are symptomatic of a larger trend where “high-stakes testing is turning schools into test prep factories.” Cook thinks that is one reason why students are doing badly on tests and leaving school.

Teaching to the test, say critics, makes students disinterested and less likely to retain knowledge. The type of inquiry-based learning used in performance assessment, they say, is a more effective way to teach students and gives them learning skills they can apply to their lives.

Turner says he teaches his history students analytical skills that address “real issues that historians have to deal with.”

He describes a class session where he talked about his experience at a protest. Students responded by asking about the types of unions involved and their relation to labor strategies in the Gilded Age. “You don’t get that if you just know that the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was passed in 1890,” says Turner.

A group of historians and journalists evaluating the Global History and Geography Regents exam concluded that only an impossible whirlwind tour of world history could prepare students for the types of “trivial” knowledge assessed by the tests.

Such a tour, says Beacon freshman Douglas Raymond, “undermines a student’s individuality” by simplifying knowledge to a test grade and focusing on facts, dates and statistics. In performance assessment, says Raymond, “teachers really work with you” and “you get more of a chance to see what you need to work on individually.”

SAVING THE CHILDREN FROM LITERATURE

In June 2002, Jeanne Heifetz, the step-parent of a New York City senior, discovered that state education officials had been censoring the literary excerpts used in the English Regents. Despite promising to stop sanitizing excerpts, test makers were caught altering material on the next two Regents.—AH & MW

Some censored excerpts (material in brackets deleted):

From a speech by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to the Commonwealth Club of California:
Polls “show strong American support for the organization at the grass-roots level [regardless of what is said and done on Capitol Hill.” “The United States is the biggest debtor, as is well known.”]

Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach:
Original: “Ah, [love],
let us be true.”

Regents: “Ah, friend,
let us be true.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird:

“Whoa – they’re not getting married after all!
[She’s gay!] And you had no idea!”