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NCLB Outrages

'Teaching to the test' nixes play in Byram

Ohanian Comment: It truly is tragic that educators don't see how they are cheating children. And that parents don't rise up in protest. I predict we are now raising a generation of children who will grow up to be very angry adults when they realize that we let the corporate-politico Standardistos steal their childhood.

The principal doesn't try to hide the agenda: "The testing sets the agenda."

The principal says, "Every teacher and principal is concerned, but it is the law and the law has teeth to it," Podgurski said. "NCLB is focused on test standards and those tests tend to drive the curriculum."

It's past time that educators consider another famous quote: "The law is an ass."
--Charles Dickens

The good news here is that a parent resistance website is featured alongside the online version of this story. Don't miss it!

By Laura Bruno

BYRAM -- Instead of spending two weeks rehearsing for traditional grade-level plays this winter, students at Byram Lakes Elementary School will instead stay in class -- drilling the basic skills needed to pass state standardized tests.

In addition, the school is pushing all field trips for third- and fourth-graders, PTA-sponsored assemblies and school presentations into dates after the state testing period. The district hired additional basic skills teachers this year and instituted after-school and summer test prep tutoring focused on getting students to pass the exams.

School officials said they are preparing for 2014, when the federal No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB, calls for 100 percent of students in third through eighth grades to pass state exams in literacy and math. Already next school year, they point out, the state will increase the required passing rates for elementary school children to 82 percent passing the literacy exam, up from 75 percent. In math, 73 percent of students will need to pass, up from 62 percent.

"We will all miss the traditional plays, but the testing sets the agenda," Byram Lakes Principal Tom Podgurski wrote in an e-mail recently to Bryam parent Angela Breuninger.

Breuninger, parent of a Bryam Lakes fourth-grader, is voicing concerns that the federal law is pushing schools to focus solely on teaching to the test.

"I think this is detrimental to our children and is encouraging bad teaching habits," Breuninger said. "It will only get worse as the demands become greater for test performance. It really scares me."

Breuninger's concerns are echoed across the country. A study by the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy this spring found that subjects not tested under NCLB are getting less attention during the school day.

The center surveyed 299 school districts around the country and found one-third reduced time for social studies "somewhat or to a great extent"to make time for reading and math. Arts and science were taking a backseat, as well, with 22 percent reducing time for arts and music and 29 percent reducing time for science.

"There's an old adage that what you test is what you get," said Robert Schaeffer, spokesman for FairTest, an advocacy group that says standardized tests are overused. "If states judge schools solely on reading and math scores, that is where schools will focus. Everything else is pushed to the edge of the plate -- or off the plate."

Schaeffer points to Florida's social studies council, which asked that the state test history so the subject will count. Public schools have been cutting back on recess, electives and field trips to make more time for test prep, he said.

'Test-coaching factories'

"Schools are becoming test-coaching factories, not institutions that develop well-rounded, well-educated children," Schaeffer said.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has repeatedly rejected the notion that standardized testing has resulted in "teaching to the test" in many classrooms.

"There is no teaching to the test," Spellings said earlier this year in a speech in Morris County. "Testing has always been a part of the teaching enterprise since Socrates. At some point there has to be a measurement -- a day of reckoning ... where you stand and deliver and prove what you know."

Byram Lakes' principal said the law is changing how they educate the school's 660 pupils. The play rehearsals took up so much time -- coordinating songs and dances for an entire grade over two weeks of the school year -- that teachers felt they needed that time to focus on academic instruction, Podgurski said.

Instead of grade-level plays performed on stage, each class will do a "strictly academically-oriented" presentation for parents in their classroom, Podgurski said.

"Every teacher and principal is concerned, but it is the law and the law has teeth to it," Podgurski said. "NCLB is focused on test standards and those tests tend to drive the curriculum."

For example, he said, the grades are focusing on more writing, in particular quick writing. The state exams give students visual prompts and they have to write about what they see. So the school is working to have students develop their thoughts more quickly, he said.

So far, the Sussex County K-8 district has met the majority of NCLB standards. Last year, the district received an early warning letter from the state when too many middle school students with disabilities failed the state exams in math.

Unacceptable sacrifice

Meanwhile, New Jersey is cautioning school districts that sacrificing subjects such as the arts is unacceptable.

"The arts are a great motivator," said Jay Doolan, an acting assistant commissioner in the state Department of Education. "The arts challenge kids to be creative ... it taps resources kids are not normally using. I think, as a society, we want all of our students exposed to the arts."

The state is currently compiling the results of an arts survey given to every school district in the state. State standards require teaching in four areas of the arts; theater, dance, visual arts and music.

Preliminary findings show "very few districts are implementing state standards in theater," Doolan said.

The state knows some districts are limiting exposure to the arts in order to focus on literacy, math and science -- the three subjects tested by the state. Doolan said that's a troubling development. All standards have to be covered during the school year, he said.

Byram Superintendent Joseph Pezak said the district is not cutting its arts and music instruction. He said the standards in theater are being met in other ways in the classroom, aside from traditional plays.

"We have to have a balanced approach," Pezak said. "We have not removed any allocation of time in the fine arts."

The idea to eliminate the plays came from the teaching staff, Pezak said. The faculty drafted a letter for the school board to consider substituting the grade-level theatrical productions with class-level presentations for parents.

Walter Stanek, president of the school board, said the board heard from staff that the coordination of several classes at a grade level was cumbersome and time-consuming.

"The grade-level plays were taking away from the academics," Stanek said.

Not the only factor

The board had to weigh what they were giving up with what the children would gain, Stanek said. While NCLB was a factor, it was not the only reason for the change, he said.

Stanek said he was surprised to hear the principal say the tests drive the agenda.

"We were looking at how best to help our students learn," Stanek said. "Basically, we were looking at how best to prepare students for future grades and how best to use classroom time."

Breuninger said she doesn't fault teachers or administrators for the decision, and she understands the pressures they face to churn out students who pass the tests. She knows they can face sanctions if they don't. Schools that continually fail to meet standards can be restructured, which can include replacing all school staff.

But she is noticing changes in her daughter, an "A" student. She's rushing through her work because there's pressure on her to work quickly, Breuninger said.

She believes parents and schools do have a choice, however. The federal law is up for reauthorization in 2007. She believes there are alternative ways of assessing children, other than standardized tests.

"We have the choice to organize, educate the public and demand reform," Breuninger said. "I'm saying parents, c'mon, we have to wake up, our kids are going to suffer from this."

— Laura Bruno
Daily Record


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