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New Testing Worries Parents, Schools

Why do parents accept--and even welcome--this frenzy of testing? Should real estate values take over children's lives to the extent that they spend their Christmas and spring vacations working on test-prep packets?

Educators and parents are anxiously waiting to see how a large number of new state tests in English and math will affect elementary and middle school students next year.

The new tests which will be given in grades three, five, six and seven are part of No Child Left Behind, the federal law that requires all of the nation's children to be tested on the same basic skills.

The tests will be similar to the state's fourth- and eighth-grade exams, and state officials are urging calm. But parents aren't sure.

"It's hard to tell which way it will go: whether it will increase teaching to the test, or if it will make everybody relax because the kids will have more practice," said Tracy Ronnermann, who has two children in Yonkers public schools.

Across the country, parents and educators are afraid that the sanctions in the federal law will unfairly penalize teachers and schools serving poor and minority communities. Research shows that low-income and minority students perform worse on tests.

Test scores affect local families and their communities in real ways. They help determine the value of homes in communities. They help educators decide if children should be labeled as struggling students and need to stay after school for extra help. They also are a source of intense competition in a region filled with high-achieving parents.

With so much at stake, schools in the area have infused the testing culture into the curriculum.

Ronnermann's children take practice tests in school and spend their Christmas and spring vacations working on test-prep packets.

At the Hutchinson School in Pelham, fourth-graders write persuasive letters to their principal, Julio Delgado, each week, then grade the letters with Delgado on a scale of one to four as teachers do on the state tests.

On Wednesday, Delgado read several of the children's letters to their class as they tried to persuade him to change the structure of the school day. Delgado gave a dramatic reading of each letter, talking through the mistakes the writers made and where they needed to improve.

The goal was to take the fear out of writing and prepare children for the state's English Language Arts test, which they will take next week.

"He's very funny," said Tori Bowser, 9. "He's trying to help us in a good way. Not like being real strict ... and I think it's very nice because we're writing to a person that we know."

The students are nervous about the test, but they seem to be taking the work in stride. It is clear that testing has become part of their lives as they explain their rationale in class for the scores they award their classmates.

"You're kind of forcing them to do what the ELA forces you to do," Delgado said.

After the tests, the PTA at Thiells Elementary School in the North Rockland school district sponsors a trip for the fourth grade to a steakhouse and a movie at the Palisades Center mall. The trip is designed to reward the students for going through a stressful time.

The integration of test preparation in the classroom has many parents upset. They fear that more tests will only make school tougher for children even though the standards are important to achieve.

"I feel for the kids who have to take the test every year, and how the curriculum gets taught to the test," said Karen Roche of Brewster, who has daughters in the third and eighth grade. "Yet, if this is the curriculum the children should be learning, then you're accomplishing what you need to accomplish."

Mary Corretjer, the president of the Thiells PTA, said she hoped the new testing would allow teachers to focus less on test-taking skills and make school less tense for children.

"I just hope that it alleviates the stress of the kids," she said.

Parents have been protesting the state's test regimen for years. Scarsdale parents ran boycotts, pulling their children out of school to avoid taking the exams. Because of the boycott, the high-achieving Scarsdale Middle School was cited by the state as a "school requiring academic progress" after less than 95 percent of its students took the tests. Parents said the citation showed the state was less concerned with finding a way to make real improvement in education and more interested in setting numerical benchmarks that don't mean anything.

But some parents support the exams and say they have helped children learn.

Ellen Henson, who has a son in the sixth grade in Elmsford, said the tests allow her to see how well the district is performing compared with surrounding districts. If students are achieving far below state standards, she said, it gives her an opportunity to speak to administrators and teachers to find out why.

Hanson said Elmsford has been improving since the tests were instituted. The district has hired English and math specialists and mapped out the curriculum from kindergarten through 12th grade. Curriculum mapping allows teachers to focus on different skills each year and know what their colleagues are teaching.

"When they keep raising the standards of the test, there is nothing wrong with teaching to the test," Henson said.

Reach David Novich at dnovich@thejournalnews.com or 914-694-3527. Reach David Novich at dnovich@thejournalnews.com or 914-694-3527.

— David Novich
The Journal News


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