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Michele Somerville

Michele Somerville

Posted: January 22, 2011 11:32 AM

According to Wednesday's New York Times, the NYC DOE (New York City Department of Education) announced Tuesday that it would allocate $10 million to supporting students who fared poorly on standardized tests, but teachers from all camps agree that "teaching to the test" and "teaching" are not the same thing.

This money should not be used to buy more "teaching to the test."

The teacher of one of my children, a superb educator, once complained about being required to miss school for two days in order to grade standardized tests. Like most excellent teachers, she was reluctant to be absent from class in order to to do this work. (The taxpayers and cash-strapped DOE paid for two teachers that day.) After doing the grading, she lamented the shortcomings of the scoring procedure -- its failure, in particular, to allow for partial credit, which she believed was, in some cases, due. While reading third grade tests on third grade material she covered each year, the third grade teacher found that some incorrect multiple choice answers were more wrong than others. Not distinguishing between partially wrong and totally wrong answers, she felt, resulted in an inaccurate assessment of proficiency.

As home, I tend to de-emphasize standardized tests, but because I have wanted my children to be familiar with their formats before they sat for these tests, I have used obsolete copies of the city-wide Math and ELA (English Language Arts) examinations to help my children prepare for them.

Never have I perused the ELA tests and not found objective errors (grammar, mechanics and typos). Many classroom teachers agree that the ELA tests are often too ambiguously worded, and as a writer, poet and educator who has taught about 40 children to read, I am always struck by the extent to which children who read imaginatively are penalized in the reading comprehension portions. Furthermore, there are some fool writing strategies children must employ in order to wrangle the highest grade of 4 on the writing section. Novelist Philip Roth might have a hard time getting a 4 on the writing section of the ELA test.

Some very bright children do well on these tests, but most teachers, both those who "teach to" these tests and those who refuse (on principle) to do, agree: These standardized tests, on which so much hinges, are not very intelligently conceived. Many smart, capable children fare poorly on them; many well-trained but not so very intellectually gifted students excel on them; and many highly intelligent public school students fare just okay on them.

Predicating an evaluation of students' progress on one test per year is, under the best conditions, folly. It's a bit like basing A-Rod's batting excellence on one game a year.

As a high school English teacher -- even when I had 150 students at once -- I assigned, read, scribbled upon, and graded one formal composition at least every other week and gave lots of unannounced quizzes. At the end of the semester I'd ask my college and high school students to grade themselves. Roughly 85 percent assigned themselves the grade at which I had already arrived. The frequency of testing offered students maximum information along the way and better control, and it it helped me to know what students needed. More important, it let me know what my students did not need.

Hundreds of classroom hours and DOE dollars are wasted each day teaching children things they already know. Time, in DOE NYC schools really is money. Cut the time it takes for a child to learn a concept, and money gets saved. It is cheaper to do it right, than to do it improperly.

All three of my children were fortunate enough to have excellent public education in grades 1 through 5 NYC DOE schools. Because fifth grade is the last year of a self-contained class in DOE schools -- to be followed by transition into middle school with its switching of classes, lockers, and going out to lunch -- my children were especially lucky to have excellent fifth grade teachers.

Recently, as a result of its verification-mad, testing frenzy, the DOE has threatened to publicize the grades it has assigned to individual DOE teachers. I am all for teacher accountability, but this idea is as as silly as it is untenable. (The problems associated with grading teachers and making these grades public are so numerous as to require an essay dedicated to them alone.)

It is hard to imagine a finer teacher than my youngest daughter's fifth grade teacher. She excelled in every possible area of teaching. This educator was funny, easygoing, smart, a great writing and math teacher, a history buff who ignited my child's interest in history, a tough new York gal in love with all her students, a bit of a philosopher, creative, organized, fair, and one of the more compassionate people I have ever met.

The DOE gave her the grade of "F".

I guess it's hard to get an "A" when you're not there on the day of the test.

My daughter's fifth grade teacher was not in a classroom the year she earned the grade of "F." She was out on maternity leave that year.

This is why it is wrong to rely on "the test." These kind of mistakes are made every day in assessing the mastery and performance of NYC DOE students. The same crew who assigned my daughter's fifth grade teacher an "F" administers the test "to which" so many fine teachers, such as the aforementioned one, find themselves required "to teach."

This is what Public Advocate Bill de Blasio had to say about the $10 million. And he is right.

"But while those $10 million help, I doubt it's everything we need to do. We have to figure out exactly what will give these kids the leg up that they deserve."

Every DOE dime should be spent carefully. The poor should get more than the affluent, and people with special needs should get more than the rest.

New York City plans to issue disbursements to principals who will determine how best to use them. I'm not sure how I would spend this money if I were a principal, but I sure know how these DOE dollars should not be spent.

They should not be squandered on tenure whores masquerading as pedagogues. Nor on time-clock punchers, failed teachers completing "wordsearch" puzzles in DOE district office desk jobs, or naively conceived Special Education programs, which, because they don't work, are cost-ineffective.

The $10 million should not pay for flimsy band-aids on gaping, gushing arterial wounds. They should be used to stop the bleed.

Some of that $10 million ought to go to experts -- not education hacks -- but real educators, intellectuals and thinkers (maybe Philip Roth is available) who can assist in designing exciting protocols for enabling the thousands of children left behind by "No Child Left Behind" to be "free at last" to show us how intelligent they truly are.

 

Follow Michele Somerville on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NYpoet