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NCLB Outrages

No Child Left Behind Act: Schools Prep for New State Exams

Ohanian Comment; Note who gives NCLB fulsome praise--Education Trust. And the state claims the tests give schools more and better data. Indeed.

All New York pupils in third through eighth grades will face annual tests starting in the next school year under a major expansion of the state's testing program.

State education officials say the annual tests in English and math will give schools more and better data on student achievement. But the expansion of state testing -- from fourth and eighth grades to every grade from three to eight -- has some parents concerned about their children's stress levels, and has some school officials worried about the logistics and costs of giving the exams.

One of those concerned is Holly Finch, the mother of a third-grader and two first-graders in the Susquehanna Valley Central School District. "We don't do anything else but prepare kids for tests," she said. "They're missing other things."

The testing increase, a result of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, is designed to help children succeed in school. But in human terms, the annual tests also will mean:

* Pupils spend more time preparing for exams.

* Teachers face more pressure to have their classes succeed.

* Accountability and costs increase for school districts.

Hanging over everything is the issue of how the state will use the new test results to rate schools. Many experts predict the additional testing makes it likely more schools will wind up on states' "schools in need of improvement" lists.

"You could see more of us in Binghamton's situation," Chenango Forks Superintendent Ellen O'Donnell said.

Binghamton High School is on New York's list because two subgroups, black students and economically disadvantaged students, have not met state targets.

The No Child Left Behind Act is arguably the most far-reaching federal education law in U.S. history. Adopted in late 2001, the law -- with its emphasis on increased testing, tough requirements for improving student achievement and increased school accountability -- is the centerpiece of President Bush's education agenda.

With Bush's re-election, supporters and critics of the law agree on one thing: It's here to stay with no major changes. In fact, there will be a ratcheting up of its accountability provisions, with annual testing in reading and math the next big requirement for every state.

"It's more stress," O'Donnell said. "Right now fourth- and eighth-grade teachers are primarily under the gun. With (grade) three-to-eight benchmarks, the pressure will be on all grade levels."

One reason for the pressure: Test scores will determine if pupils are reaching "adequate yearly progress" targets toward No Child Left Behind's goal of having all students "proficient" by 2013-14.

Failure to meet the targets for all students and eight subgroups -- including black students, special education students and economically disadvantaged students -- can land a school on New York's "schools in need of improvement" list. This opens the door to sanctions that begin with having to prepare improvement plans and end with the possible replacement of school staff if test scores don't improve.

Some concerns

The increase in the number of grades being tested has received significant attention in educational circles, but many parents aren't aware the state is expanding its program.

"I haven't heard about them," said Norene Tasber, the mother of a first-grader in the Whitney Point Central School District.But Tasber knows one thing. Her daughter comes home with homework every night as teachers work to prepare children for New York's new academic standards.

Michelle Gorman, the mother of a fifth-grader and a seventh-grader in the Susquehanna Valley district, worries about the stress. The state's current fourth-grade tests already put "so much pressure on the children," she said, and some students "get so hyped up."

But concerns about stress on children can be overplayed, teachers said.

"We don't think about it as stressful," said Mike Trapani, a fourth-grade teacher at C.R. Weeks Elementary School in the Windsor Central School District. "Kids know they have tests to work on during the year, so they're used to it."

And supporters of No Child Left Behind argue testing, and the school accountability that comes with it, are necessary if American education is to improve.

"It's enormously positive because, for the first time, it gives us data on how all groups of students are achieving. For too long, the performance of poor and minority students has been masked by averages," said Fredreka Schouten, a senior associate with the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C, education think tank that backs the law.

More testing is something everyone will need to get used to, said Maureen Hawley of Owego, the parent of seventh-, ninth- and 11th-grade students in the Owego-Apalachin Central School District.

"I don't know if we can resist the testing," she said. "It's the direction education is taking."

Getting ready

To prepare students for state tests, districts across the Southern Tier have done extensive work over the past few years to align their English and math curricula with state standards.

A number of districts, including Windsor, Johnson City and Chenango Valley, have joined with the Binghamton City School District's benchmark program that tests students every 10 weeks and does data analysis to identify gaps in children's skills.

Teachers look at the state tests carefully to make sure they hit topics that are going to be tested, said Lynda DeLuca, a veteran sixth-grade teacher in the Union-Endicott Central School District.

At the same time, DeLuca emphasized, she works hard to make sure other subjects have not been squeezed out of a student's day.

Still, educators said, the state tests can't help but reshape what happens in classrooms during the school year.

"Consciously or unconsciously" some things get squeezed out because teachers are focused on preparing students for the tests, Maine-Endwell Superintendent Joseph Stoner said. Teachers could shorten or drop some projects they did in the past, he said.

Some teachers say they've dropped some of "the nice, fun things" to focus on the state tests, said Mary Waskie, assistant superintendent of Chenango Valley Central School.

Teachers have less flexibility to stop a lesson and do something creative and different when the moment arises, said Robert Callahan, principal at SV's Cedarhurst Elementary School.

Making the best use of time has become an issue, other officials said.

"Obviously," O'Donnell said, "choices are going to have to be made."

Greater accountability

In the back of school officials' minds is one reality: While students take state tests, test scores determine how schools are rated.

At its simplest level, No Child Left Behind requires schools to bring every child to the proficient level in math and reading by 2014. To reach the goal, each school must show steady improvement in test scores under a complex set of formulas set by each state.

If one student group doesn't make acceptable progress, the whole school is labeled "in need of improvement."

When the new tests begin, each school will receive one cumulative score that will report how well students in all the grades tested are doing in reaching state benchmarks, said James Kadamus, deputy New York state education commissioner.

But, he said, one key question remains: "How many students must be in a particular subgroup for the school to be held accountable for the academic performance of that group?"

New York sets the number at 30 students; Pennsylvania sets it at 40. This means the accountability provisions of No Child Left Behind fall most heavily on the largest schools, which have enough students in various subgroups to be rated.

Schools in the Binghamton and Union-Endicott districts, Broome's largest, have been labeled "in need of improvement" because certain subgroups failed to meet state targets.

Kadamus said New York is debating whether to raise the subgroup size above 30 once testing is expanded to all grades three through eight.

One potential consequence: If the state keeps the number at 30, and students in different grades get added together, O'Donnell said, more local schools could wind up on the "in need of improvement" list.

Preparing the tests

A major benefit of the new state tests is that they will give schools better and more complete data on how students are progressing toward meeting New York's academic standards, Kadamus said.

"If we do this right, we'll create a vertical link of one level of test to another and one grade to another so we can measure a student's progress over time," he said. That means schools will be better able to assess the strengths and weaknesses in their instruction, he said.

Teachers will develop and approve test items, and the state has contracted with CTB/McGraw-Hill, a publisher of standardized tests, to check the quality of test questions. The tests will run 100-150 minutes in grades four, six and eight and between 70 and 100 minutes in grades three, five and seven.

Kadamus doesn't believe children will be over-tested. He said school districts already give standardized tests, such as the Terra Novas, annually. If districts follow the state's recommendation to replace these tests with the new state tests, students should see less testing time, he said.

Most Southern Tier districts plan to do this replacement.

Still, some school officials also worry about a series of issues:

* How will they find substitutes when teachers are out of their classrooms grading the tests?

* How will they find staff to provide testing accommodations required for disabled students?

* How will they crunch the data?

Most of all they're working to stay focused on the job ahead.

As Pauline LeStrange, a third-grade teacher at C.R Weeks school, said: "We want all children to succeed."

— George Basler and Connie Nogas
Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin


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