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NCLB Outrages

Testing, Testing ... but What?

Ohanian Comment:

“We all know what the state wants to see on a test, and of course we keep that in mind on every lesson plan. I love these kids like they’re my own kids. There’s so much riding on it, and there is a lot of pressure. But it improves you as a person. In the world of assessment, I want Stevens to be successful.”

--Melissa Mach, English teacher, Elmont Memorial Junior-Senior High School

A Standardisto definition of self-improvement?

It's plain to see you're losing all control.
Who needs love like that? Who needs love like that?
Who needs love like that? Who needs love like that?
Who needs love like that? Who needs love like that?
--Vince Clarke

"This is what they’re telling schools to do. I’m not going to argue. I just have to find ways to do it."
--John Capozzi, Principal, Elmont Memorial Junior-Senior High School

"Befehl ist Befehl." Only following orders.
--Nuremberg Trials defense

By Ford Fessenden

Elmont, N.Y.

WHEN Stevens Cadet didn’t show up at Elmont Memorial Junior-Senior High School for a Saturday morning test-preparation session one day last year, he got a call from his teacher, Patricia Klein, who keeps the telephone numbers of her students programmed into her cellphone.

“Wake up, it’s Saturday,” Stevens, now 14, recalled Ms. Klein’s saying into the phone. If she had not awakened him, Stevens said, one of his friends would have called to urge him to get to class. “Most of the kids are here on Saturday, and the faculty is always here,” he said.

For the last five years, this Long Island public school with more than 2,000 students in grades 7 through 12, just over the border from Queens, has shown significant gains on the statewide eighth-grade English and math tests now required by the federal No Child Left Behind law.

With almost 60 percent of its students meeting reading and writing standards based on the eighth-grade English exam, up from 35 percent in 2000, Elmont has earned a reputation as a school capable of meeting the federal law’s goal of narrowing the academic achievement gap between minority and white children. Seventy-four percent of the school’s students are black, 11 percent are Asian, 13 percent are Hispanic, and 2 percent are white. Twenty-three percent of the students are eligible for a free or reduced-price meal.

At Elmont, the commitment to improving student performance, with a focus on test preparation, is consuming. And like the teachers at an increasing number of schools, Elmont’s staff members use the mountain of data from standardized tests to help shape their classroom lessons and prepare their students for the tests.

“We are absolutely driven by data,” said John Capozzi, the school’s principal. His staff members pore over scores and questions from tests to help decide what to emphasize in their classes, and which students, like Stevens Cadet, may need extra assistance to improve their performance in the classroom and on the next assessment test.

Not only are classes offered on Saturday but extra-help sessions are also available before and after school. In the classroom, lessons are peppered with sample test questions. Teachers drill slogans like “Score 4, no less, no more, ” a reference to the highest score on the state tests. And in the days leading up to the statewide assessment tests, inspirational posters decorate hallways.

So, not surprisingly, teachers and staff members at Elmont were stunned on Sept. 21 when the state released the results of the most recent round of statewide English tests. This time, instead of 60 percent of its eighth-grade students meeting the reading and writing standards, almost 60 percent of the students did not. (Results on the eighth-grade math test, which also improved significantly for Elmont in the last five years, are due later this month.)

What does this sudden drop-off, one of the largest declines in the New York metropolitan region, say about Elmont, or about the test? Or about the extent of the efforts that some schools are making to comply with the No Child Left Behind law, which requires that all students meet state standards by 2014?

Mr. Capozzi has spent the days since the results were announced going over his vaunted data, trying to decipher the decline at Elmont. So far, he says, he has found no explanations, and no consolation. He wonders if something might have been wrong with the test, which was revised in the last year.

David M. Abrams, the assistant commissioner for standards, assessment and reporting for the New York Department of Education, said the test format did not change appreciably, although some questions, testing seventh-grade content, were dropped. Other schools did not find the latest test more difficult, Mr. Abrams said.

Mr. Capozzi, a former social studies teacher, football coach and assistant principal who became principal last year, said: “One thing I do know, it’s not the kids. Our kids are extremely hard working. They attend all our sessions. It’s not like they shy away from a challenge.”

“It’s discouraging to see our teachers teach and our students work as hard as they do, and the assessments coming back with the scores we’re getting now,” he said. But, he added: “I’m already working on next year. We will come up with a plan to fix it. That’s the bottom line.”

Five years after its passage, the No Child Left Behind law continues to alter the landscape of elementary and secondary education in school districts across the metropolitan region.

Schools have begun reporting results on a wave of new tests given for the first time in grades 3, 5, 6 and 7 in New York; grades 5, 6 and 7 in New Jersey; and grades 3, 5 and 7 in Connecticut. Connecticut has released results, and New Jersey has informed schools of the results, but will not report statewide results until January.

At the same time, school administrators now have new tools to analyze the data that they are getting from these tests, which could lead to further reshaping of school curriculums, raising concerns among opponents of the No Child Left Behind law that some schools will place even more emphasis on “teaching to the test” and not paying enough attention to teaching students higher-level thinking skills.

IN New York, a new program called the State Testing and Accountability Reporting Tool, or nySTART, would allow principals to know how every student did on every question. Through similar analytical tools, administrators across the region are gaining a deeper understanding of the impact of their teaching on results.

“Everyone teaches to the test — the question is whether it’s a good test,” said Earl Kim, the superintendent of the Verona public school district in New Jersey, where administrators use their own Excel spreadsheets to break down the test results. New Jersey plans its own version of nySTART, called NJ Smart, but its development has been delayed. “The test should measure something important, and should be reliable,” Mr. Kim said.

While poorer school districts with a higher number of low-performing students may feel under more pressure to dig deep into the data to help improve future test results, administrators in more affluent districts said that they also felt the pressure to improve scores.

“Everyone feels this accountability, from the student to the teacher to the administrators,” said Charles J. Murphy, the superintendent of the Sachem Central School District on Long Island, a large, mostly white, middle-class district. “Education can’t be all about scores, but the focus really is about scores.”

In fact, the number of standardized tests being administered in schools only seems to grow. The new state tests in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut mean that every student in third through eighth grade will take a state test this year. Before last spring, state tests below the high school level were delivered only in fourth and eighth grade in New York, and in third, fourth and eighth grade in New Jersey. Connecticut tested in grades 4, 6 and 8 before adding the full contingent of statewide assessment tests last spring.

But it isn’t just the state tests that are proliferating. The sheer number of ancillary tests — pre-assessments, tracking tests, sample questions, practice tests — seems to be on a pace of geometric increase. As the New Jersey Department of Education prepares a new set of state tests for next year, it is also developing a set of practice tests that districts can use to prepare for them.

“Districts would be able to use it periodically to be able to see exactly what questions Johnny missed,” said Lucille E. Davy, the acting commissioner of education in New Jersey. “It will be tied to the state standard and to the end-of-year tests, with questions that are developed to look like what’s being asked on those tests.”

Most districts are not waiting. In Passaic, N.J., one of the poorest districts in the region, the schools give benchmark assessments written by teams of teachers to look like the state tests and to cover material the tests might cover.

“Benchmark assessments are early indicators of how they have been taught a series of skills,” said Passaic’s superintendent, Robert Holster. “We’re not allowed to use the state standard, but we closely align with the state tests.”

STEVENS CADET was a seventh grader when he entered Elmont Memorial Junior-Senior High, one of five high schools in the Sewanhaka Central School District, in a working-class neighborhood not far from Belmont Park. He was 12 years old.

Smart and voluble, he showed signs of academic promise, but his schoolwork was inconsistent. His teachers said — and he and his parents agreed — that he did not always submit his homework assignments on time and that his exuberance could be disruptive in class.

In another era, a teacher discussing his prospects might have focused on the D he was in danger of getting in mathematics, or the 60’s he said he was getting on science tests.

But in the language of the teachers’ lounge at Elmont, Stevens was a Level 2, a “high two.” In New York, the state tests grade proficiency on a scale of Level 1 to Level 4. Students who score in the Level 3 and 4 ranges meet the academic standards set by the state and required by the No Child Left Behind law. Students scoring in Levels 1 and 2 do not and are considered at risk for failing in high school.

Stevens was a critical quantity — someone on the cusp of attaining the passing grade.

“Our target group is kids like Stevens, who’s a high two, and we want to take him to a three or even a four,” said Melissa Mach, his English teacher.

Encouraged by teachers, his Haitian-born parents and even his friends, Stevens began attending extra-help sessions, including the Saturday lessons led by his math teacher, Patricia Klein, who was unafraid of calling him at home on Saturday mornings.

His grades improved. Ms. Klein and his other teachers believed he could not only make a Level 3, but might even attain a 4 by the time he took the eighth-grade English test, which he did last spring. Out of 357 Elmont eighth graders who took the 2005 English test, 53 achieved 4’s, four times the number that scored that high in 2000.

“It’s a lot of pressure,” Stevens, now a ninth grader, said recently as he awaited his test results. “But it’s good at the same time. The assessment pushes you because this is something that the state requires you to do. It’s important.”

Mr. Capozzi never stops pushing test preparation, which extends beyond eighth grade. At Elmont, 91 percent of seniors received the prestigious Regents diploma — 41 percent with advanced diplomas. Elmont also had more minority students pass the Advanced Placement test in world history than any school in the country.

Making his rounds through the tiled hallways of Elmont High a few days after school started, Mr. Capozzi looked in on a 10th-grade world history class taught by Michael Indovino. With Regents examinations required for graduation and Advanced Placement tests for college looming at the end of the year, high school students are under just as much pressure as their middle school counterparts.

“Part of this concept has been on the A. P. exam two of the last three years,” Mr. Indovino said, pointing to an image from an overhead projector of both an outline of the lesson and a sample question.

Mr. Capozzi laughed. “Hint, hint,” he said.

The growing use of test data to help students prepare raises concerns among some educators.

“There’s a tremendous move toward data-driven decision making,” said Jennifer Booher-Jennings, a researcher at Columbia University who has studied standardized tests in Texas, the state that, under Gov. George W. Bush, provided the paradigm for No Child Left Behind.

But in an atmosphere in which educators are measured on the number of students they can boost over a certain passing line — Level 3 in New York, or a 70 in Texas — teachers tend to focus, quite rationally, on those just under the line, she said.

“In a system that’s based on thresholds rather than growth, there’s no reason to move someone from a 60 to a 95, or from a 20 to a 70,” Ms. Booher-Jennings said. “It’s focused on moving a 69 to a 71.”

Michael Rice, the superintendent of schools in Clifton, N.J., said many districts were restricting programs like art, physical education, technology and even social studies to focus on subjects on which students are tested by the state. “It’s troubling,” he said. “It’s absolutely unhelpful to the development of well-rounded children.”

At Elmont, though, the teachers and administrators have heard the message of No Child Left Behind, and they do not find it ambiguous.

“We all know what the state wants to see on a test, and of course we keep that in mind on every lesson plan,” Ms. Mach said. “I love these kids like they’re my own kids. There’s so much riding on it, and there is a lot of pressure. But it improves you as a person. In the world of assessment, I want Stevens to be successful.”

Ultimately, Mr. Capozzi, like many administrators, says he worries that No Child Left Behind narrows the curriculum, but he has no doubts about what it requires of him.

“This is what they’re telling schools to do,” he said. “I’m not going to argue. I just have to find ways to do it.”

— Ford Fessenden
New York Times


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