The Civic Scene: Students must learn school material, not study to pass tests

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As the debate over mayoral control of city public schools rages on, city officials send out statistics saying schools are improving while some parents and teachers say the success is smoke and mirrors.

Well, the figures are there. Graduation rates are up 5 percent or more in some high schools. Some schools have a 100 percent graduation rate. Some school districts show a 10 percent increase in state English tests.

Citywide English test results by grade have jumped 15 percent from last year to this year. This looks like the students are learning. In 2006, 58.8 percent of students in all grades passed the English language arts tests, in 2007 65.3 percent passed, and in 2009

76.1 percent passed. City officials praise these results. If the success is real, that is good for our city and future economic development, which will depend on an educated workforce.

But do these results mean students have learned or that they have been coached to pass tests? Students take home test preparation kits to study. Teachers spend hours reviewing old tests. Parents send their children to special tutorial classes outside school. Higher test scores for a school mean it is rated higher and teachers and the supervisors can receive bonuses of tens of thousands of dollars.

I have spoken with teachers, who say some students do not want to do homework, listen or come to class but want immediate gratification through videos. Students goof off during the first half of the year, then put in effort and pass in the second half. Also, in summer school, instead of failing students after three absences, the staff lets them take off a week or so and passes them if they pass the final test.

Another way to help students pass is with “credit recovery programs.” Students can make up failing classes by taking nine hours of classes and completing 25 hours of work. The recovery classes are held during vacations or after regular classes. It is a valid idea if students actually work, but there are no tests to determine if material has been mastered. There is no state mechanism to make sure the requirements are fulfilled. There is a proposal that a committee made up of teachers and the principal should determine recovery standards.

Some critics say the tests are watered down and that ways of marking math tests on a curve are silly. But curves have been used in the past. Some criticize new programs that are a change from what was taught in the past. Some experienced teachers do not like new teaching programs. Older teachers, even some who achieve good test results, are graded “U” because they do not follow the new way of teaching.

I remember discussions that there should be two leaders in a school — one an educator, the other a business executive. Today, a principal is given a fixed amount of money to operate a school and do innovative things. But if reading and math scores are so important, then the arts, clubs and sports and vocational education may have to be eliminated or cut back. Some parent-teacher associations raise money to pay for a music, dance or fine arts teacher so students can have a bit more culture.

Fewer than 40 percent of 2007 high school graduates met the City University of New York’s standard for college readiness. This means we are still not producing skilled, motivated graduates in our high schools, which our economy needs to compete in the global market.

Some parents get frustrated when there is no space for their children in kindergarten or middle or high schools. Parents complain the watered down city school districts cannot help them find placement for their child or solve a problem which crops up during the school year.

Another complaint about the higher graduation rates is that students who drop out of school are not counted in the figures, so the statistics look better. I have been saying for years that about 40 percent of high school students drop out of school. Special education students are now figured into a school’s population so statistics cannot go up too high due to some of them being unable to pass comprehensive tests.

It is good city Department of Education officials want more students to pass tests and graduate. The problem is the quality of the graduates and their acquired skills, work ethic and ability to learn new skills as the global economy changes. A diploma means nothing if the student has a poor work ethic and cannot learn new things.

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