From Claire E. Sylvan, Ed.D. Executive Director of Internationals Network for Public Schools
Published in (01/09/2006)
Fourth grade students from language minority communities are not the only ones who face serious impediments to their educational progress from unfair high stakes standardized tests. (Op-Ed, Failing Our Students, Evangeline Harris Stefanakis, January 8, 2006). All high school students must take Regents exams. Not surprisingly, there is a resulting dropout crisis; more than half of New York City's English Language Learners drop out. In contrast, CUNY Graduate Center researchers found that at International High Schools, small public high schools serving recent immigrants, 88.7% of students graduate. The success of English language learners is more accurately demonstrated by multiple assessments. Indeed, all International High Schools use portfolio assessment in addition to standardized tests. Our schools have developed a strong, standards based portfolio system, refined over more than a decade of implementation. Graduates repeatedly cite the writing requirements of portfolio projects as strong preparation for college research papers and other college level work. It is time for the State Education Commissioner to develop fair and appropriate policies that meet the needs of English language learners to address the growing high school dropout crisis.
Students grades 3 through 8 in New York will be tested in English starting this week, an initiative spawned by the No Child Left Behind Act and designed to boost performance by better monitoring student progress year by year. Those same students will be tested in math come March.
The initiative is a significant change for all schools accustomed to preparing only for testing in grades 4 and 8. Now, by adding four grade levels, the state Department of Education says about 3.5 million tests will be taken through March, a drastic jump from 1.2 million last year.
"It's a major undertaking for schools," said Warrensburg Central School District Superintendent Timothy Lawson. "The scoring, administration and reporting exams to the state -- a lot of time is being spent to accomplish that task."
The new testing allows teachers to identify student weaknesses by viewing test scores. Parents will receive annual reports of their children's test results and will be able to track their progress over time.
By the 2006-07 school year, every student will have a unique identification number, which ensures students can be tracked over time, even if they transfer between districts. Students also will be able to access their test results online.
English tests will have reading and writing elements, although the percentage of each will vary by grade level. Math tests will focus on problem-solving. The tests evolved from the same format used in grades 4 and 8 English and math testing and were developed with extensive input from teachers throughout the state.
The state will spend $6.5 million annually for five years to prepare and administer the tests. School districts will pay for substitutes needed while teachers are grading written and problem-solving sections of each test. The rest of each test will be graded electronically.
Tests results will be processed, analyzed, scaled and certified by the state before students can learn their scores. English results could be ready by July and math results by September. After the first year of the new testing format, state officials expect the turnaround time to reduce dramatically.
"In the future, we hope to have the system much more streamlined so results could be available before the end of the [school] year," Deputy Education Commissioner James Kadamus said on Thursday.
The expanded testing, however, has generated some concerns. Teachers who have never prepared for this sort of testing will see it for the first time. David Diamond, a third-grade teacher at Hadley-Luzerne Middle School, which features grades 3 through 8, said the stakes are now higher for students and school districts. Diamond questioned if the initiative is testing the students or the teachers.
"If you can use the tests as a tool to help you improve your instruction, then that's great. That's how it should be used," Diamond said.
Kadamus said the testing could make some teachers anxious. But Kadamus said he is confident because more than 2,000 teachers have been trained for the testing since the fall.
Other worries still remain, such as the logistics larger schools face, or the amount of class time teachers lose while grading tests. Some have criticized the significant pressure placed on a student in third grade.
"I'm sure, and I know our teachers have prepared our students with appropriate instructions, but they are still 8 years old," Bolton Central School District Superintendent Raymond Ciccarelli Jr. said.
But educators have known this testing was coming since the No Child Left Behind Act was created in 2001. By that time, schools already were three years into testing grades 4 and 8, which started in 1998, said John Stoothoff, superintendent at the Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
Stoothoff said there won't be as much pressure on students if teachers are doing a good job. Stoothoff expects the testing to improve over time.
"This is a beginning. Over the next decade, they way it's drawn up, we'll get very good at this," Stoothoff said.