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Testing students' mettle

Ohanian comment: Another portrait of public school as the place that makes kids sick. And the headline writer dared to claim this tests kids' mettle.
1. Courage and fortitude; spirit: troops who showed their mettle in combat.
2. Inherent quality of character and temperament.

And the writer makes sure to find a kid who says the test was easy, even enjoyable.

by John Hildebrand

Despite a few jittery stomachs, Long Island schoolchildren by the thousands began taking new state English tests yesterday under a nationwide push for universal assessment.

Over the next three weeks, 210,000 area students are slated to answer multiple-choice and essay questions designed to measure skills in reading, writing, grammar and more. Math tests are coming up in March.

The numbers are triple those tested in the past and required by the federal No Child Left Behind law that is expanding annual assessments in reading and math throughout grades 3-8. Only grades 4 and 8 were tested in prior years.

While some students and their parents suffered jangled nerves yesterday, many youngsters seemed to take the new tests in stride after months of practice exams and other preparation. Such was the case at Laurel Park Elementary School in Brentwood, where more than 70 percent of students are Hispanic, with many recently arrived from Ecuador, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere.

"It was kinda easy -- I enjoyed the stories," said Sergio Salamanca, 10, one of many fifth-graders who completed the first half of their English tests yesterday. "You get to practice a lot," said a classmate, Vanessa Oliveros, also 10.

President George W. Bush, who pushed for the law's passage four years ago, has described it as a means of boosting academic achievement while also closing the performance gap between students of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. Under the law, public schools must show annual progress not only among students as a whole, but also for different groups, such as whites, blacks, Hispanics, students with disabilities and those from low-income homes. If the schools don't show progress, they can lose federal aid and also face state sanctions, such as having to revamp their curricula.

New York State, which has pushed testing on its own in recent years, has won plaudits from some national assessment experts for raising scores.

Still, many parents and school officials say the expanded testing is overkill. Diane Godigkeit, of North Babylon, a parent of two elementary-age boys, has watched her third-grade son Kurt, 8, grow agitated over the last several weeks as testing approached. On Friday, the school nurse called to say Kurt had come in complaining his head felt warm, as if he had a headache. The mother knew what was going on: "I told her it's about the testing. He's stressing himself out. He feels there will be repercussions if he doesn't do perfect on the test."

One major complaint by school administrators is that scoring from the new English tests won't be done until August, too late to help in deciding which students might benefit from summer school. Another complaint: Schools are being forced to spend more money on substitutes to cover classes while teachers score tests. Meanwhile, federal aid to schools, which rose in the first years of the Bush administration, now is declining slightly, in response to other priorities.

In Plainview-Old Bethpage, the school district's budget for substitutes to fill in for teachers grading exams has grown by two-thirds this year -- to about $40,000, according to Superintendent Martin Brooks. "Although our subs do a fine job, it's just not the same as having the regular classroom staff," said Brooks. "And what do these tests tell us that we don't already know?"

State education officials respond that scoring delays are unavoidable in the first year of expanded testing, because of technical difficulties, and that grading will be done faster in the future. They add that the expanded program is not all that time-consuming: Less than 1 percent of students' school time will be spent taking state tests in the years between grades 3-8. That figure does not include time spent prepping for tests.

And New York State is gaining recognition for its efforts. Last week, Education Week, a national publication, cited the state for boosting fourth-grade English scores among low-income students and Hispanics far faster than the national average between 1992 and 2005.

Said Christopher Swanson, research director for the testing study seen in the publication: "In a way, we can think of New York as sort of a poster child for these policies."

Staff writer Karla Schuster contributed to this report.

— John Hildebrand


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