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NCLB Outrages

Tense testing ahead

Ohanian Comment: There seems to be a great confusion of issues here. The delay of results from tests doesn't mean teachers can't figure out student skills and determine what instruction they need. It is outrageous and dangerous, as well as unprofessional, to pretend otherwise.

Besides that, just what have you got when you've got somebody who can tell a noun from a verb? I believe in grammar instruction at a deep level. And for that, I recommend Edgar Schuster's Breaking the Rules : Liberating Writers Through Innovative Grammar Instruction (Heinemann) and his Phi Delta Kappan article "Reforming English Language Arts Let's Trash the Tradition."

If the author had been on his toes, he'd have consulted an expert on teaching grammar--such as Constance Weaver, who wrote the classic resource for teachers--instead of going to the old standby FairTest, who are certainly qualified to provide good soundbites on testing but not on teaching grammar.

By John Hildebrand

Attention students . . . No, correct that . . . Attention, students: Missing commas and dangling participles could well cost you points in the school year now opening.

It's Revenge of the Grammarians. An expanded series of state tests is adding new questions on grammar -- a topic all but abandoned in many classrooms a generation ago. The tests will be taken on Long Island this school year by 210,000 students -- triple the number assessed in English here last year.

As most classes start Tuesday and Wednesday, many educators welcome the revival of grammar instruction, citing society's growing inability to tell a noun from a verb.

"It's rampant," said one veteran school administrator, Mike Cohen, who in recent weeks has posted fliers in Amityville schools, urging students to use proper grammar.

"People use 'impact' as a verb until my teeth rattle," added Cohen, who just finished a stint as Amityville's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "You've got to immerse students in proper grammar and usage, because they're immersed in improper usage wherever they go."

The explosion in testing is nationwide, spurred by President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" law, which requires annual testing in both English and math in grades 3 through 8. The movement also is backed by business leaders, who want better-educated workers, and by the nation's multibillion-dollar testing and textbook industries.

New York State, which previously tested those subjects in grades 4 and 8, will extend English testing to other grades in January and math testing in March.

To measure students' grammar skills, each new English test for grades 3, 5 and 7 will include a paragraph in which students will correct errors in spelling, punctuation, word usage and sentence structure.

On the Island, and in other suburbs, many educators and parents say they are convinced that extra tests waste time in schools where achievement already ranks well above state averages. On the other hand, nationwide polls show public opinion leaning in favor of the Bush administration's efforts to hold schools accountable through testing.

One parent who supports more tests is Inga Price of Amityville. Her daughter Raven, 11, starts sixth grade Tuesday in the district's Edmund W. Miles Middle School. "The earlier we can get a heads-up on what the kids' skill levels are, the earlier we'll be able to help them," said Price, an insurance underwriter.

However worthy its aims, "No Child Left Behind" is creating what many school officials fear will become a logistical nightmare. Because of technical complications, results from next winter's tests won't be available until eight months later. That's too late, local officials say, for scores to be used in deciding which students should be offered remedial tutoring in summer school.

Nor will districts have an easy time finding the money for extra tutoring.

Starting in 2002, when "No Child Left Behind" was signed into law, there was a substantial jump in federal Title I money earmarked for remedial instruction. This year, however, the flow of federal aid has dropped off in response to other budget demands, including the fighting in Iraq.

Michael Mostow, superintendent of Patchogue-Medford schools, says his system is getting about 10 percent less Title I money this year than last -- a loss of $100,000. "We've diverted over a million dollars to testing in this year's budget," he said. "I think it's the tail wagging the dog."

Time required to complete the new tests will range from 1 1/2 hours to three hours. The English tests will contain reading, listening and writing sections, as in the past.

Renewed attention to grammatical rules represents a turnaround from the 1960s, when many schools and colleges de-emphasized the subject. In recent years, some teachers have even called for reviving the once popular practice of diagramming sentences -- breaking them down into parts such as nouns and predicates.

Experts warn, though, against treating grammar as a separate subject, saying this should be taught as an integral part of writing.

"Students need to be able to put together a sentence with a natural rhythm and flow," said BrendaJoyce Scott, an assistant superintendent for curriculum, assessment and instruction in North Babylon. "And then, they will enjoy writing."

North Babylon is preparing to teach more grammar, nonetheless. This year, for the first time, all elementary grades in the district will use new reading books published by McGraw-Hill, the same corporation that is producing the state's English and math tests. Reading books on each grade level will be accompanied by a grammar workbook.

"No Child Left Behind" has proved lucrative for giant publishers such as Manhattan-based McGraw-Hill. The firm holds a five-year, $20-million contract with New York, one of 23 states where it provides tests. McGraw-Hill and other test publishers have lobbied vigorously for student assessment programs at national and state levels.

FairTest, a nonprofit group based in Massachusetts that lobbies for testing reforms, contends that test publishers have pushed their products too fast. This has resulted, according to FairTest and other testing critics, in numerous problems, including delays in scoring.

McGraw-Hill executives deny this, as do state education officials. They insist the long lead time required for scoring simply reflects their determination to do the job in a manner prescribed by professional standards.

Said David Abrams, the state's assistant commissioner for educational assessments, "These are standards you can't rush."

— John Hildebrand


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