Testing Obsession Should End Now
The instructional strategy of the New York City public school system — prepping children for a now-discredited series of state tests — has failed. Particularly now that the state has won nearly $700 million in new federal funds in the Race to the Top competition, we need to be honest about that failure so that we can finally focus on strategies that will make a difference for our kids.
This summer, the state Department of Education, responding to widespread suspicion that state test standards were too low and that the test had become too predictable, redefined “proficiency.” The result was a dramatic plunge in scores. Under the new scoring regimen, fewer than half of the city’s 3rd- through 8th-graders are considered proficient in reading, down from two-thirds last year, and just over half are proficient in mathematics, down from 82 percent last year.
This should not have been a surprise. While the city’s 8th-grade reading scores on the state test were soaring, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gold standard for such tests, showed that 8th-grade reading scores for New York City fell from 2003 to 2007 and have only now recovered to their 2003 level. Meanwhile, out of approximately 500 “scale score” National Assessment points, New York City’s 4th-grade math scores have gone up 11 points, and two other categories have gone up 7 points each. Many other big cities have done at least as well overall, and some — particularly Atlanta, L.A. and Boston — have done substantially better.
New York has to take some important lessons from this debacle.
First: Test prep isn’t instruction. In virtually every school I have gone into in recent years, teachers complained about instructional time lost to prepping students for tests. Art and music fell by the wayside years ago in most schools, but many schools were also shortchanging key subjects like history and science because reading and math tests were the only ones that counted. New state tests are going to be designed to be less vulnerable to this kind of “gaming.” To the extent possible, test prep should be strictly limited.
Second: The racial achievement gap still looms large. Boasts by the administration that its strategies were closing the proficiency gap between white/Asian students and black/Hispanic youngsters turned out to be baseless. Under the new scoring regimen, the math proficiency gap between white and black students doubled overnight, to 34 points from 17. Meanwhile, the administration’s insistence on a standardized test for entrance into gifted programs has meant that the percentage of minority children in such enriched programs has declined.
Third: Thousands of youngsters now in high school are in real danger of not graduating. The promotion gate established by the Department of Education for 8th-graders was so wide that almost everyone got through it. Only students in the lowest achievement category (Level 1) were denied promotion, and because of the score inflation on the state tests, only about 3 percent of 8th-graders fell into this category. The result was that thousands of children got into high school who were unprepared for high school work.
Fourth: Live by the scores, die by the scores. Mayor Bloomberg once said, “In God we trust. Everyone else, bring data.” The school system vastly expanded its testing and monitoring operations and pressured principals and teachers to focus all attention on state tests that produced reams of data. Because the tests were so flawed, most of it is now useless.
The United Federation of Teachers worked with the state on its Race to the Top application because we believe that a rich curriculum for every student — not test prep — is the only way to bring real progress to our schools. Now that we have won these new funds, the state must deliver on that promise. It must develop, based on that curriculum, a more reliable assessment of the success of both students and teachers than any standardized test. #
Michael Mulgrew is president of the United Federation of Teachers.
Reprinted from The New York Daily News.