04/23/2012 05:27 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2012

Standardized Testing: The Least We Can Do

In New York City this week and next, public school students in grades three through eight took, or will take, the state-wide standardized tests. These are the tests you have heard so much about.

These are the tests teachers of integrity are refusing to "teach to," preferring, instead, to teach. These are the tests on which, in New York City at least, so very much rides. Scores on these tests can determine, in (too) great measure, what schools students attend. These are the tests for which middle-class and affluent parents hire tutors. These are the tests with which students in poor neighborhoods and school zones try their luck. These are the tests on which Bloomberg and his ilk yearn to predicate evaluations of teachers. There is so much wrong with these tests. (Stay tuned). Despite that, for children in New York City Public Schools, whether we (students and parents) like it or not, these tests matter.

Parents with children at decent schools tend to think that their schools are at least reasonably supportive of their students on test day as they contend with the rigors of these god-awful, all-important examinations. Three days ago, I was one such parent.

That's why I was astonished to learn, at the conclusion of the first day of testing at my child's school, that approximately six eighth-grade students with mandates for test modifications (which generally allow for a more distraction-free testing environment and extended time) took the first part of their ELA (English Language Arts) tests in rooms without desks.

This in a "gifted" school in one of the "top" school zones in New York City.

This handful of students sat for the test in the room in which the school's theater arts classes are conducted. A few sat in bleachers. Two sat in chairs pushed up against the stage so as to use its platform for a writing surface. One student sat on the floor (by choice, I'm told). There were no available desks such as those at which these children would have been, had they not been pulled out of their normal classroom settings. No ostensible effort was made, apparently, to bring chairs and desks into the room.

Having watched over a thousand students take standardized tests in the course of a decade-and-a-half of working as teacher, I know how important a factor in performance the testing atmosphere can be. As a former teacher, I also know that often it is the brightest students in any given school who require test modifications. (Generally testing modifications call for a minimally distracting, quieter setting and extra time for students who need it.)

I recognize that the desk-free test location I describe does not exemplify grave hardship, but it may offer an example of unlawful conduct.

Many brilliant students have mandates for test accommodations because many brilliant people are easily distracted. Sometimes this distractibility is profound and the result of substantive neurological delays, low processing speed or working memory deficits. It is not entirely unusual for a genius New York City Department of Education student to have a "test mods."

That is why it is in the best interest of schools to ensure that test modifications are taken seriously. When highly intelligent students get what they need for assessments, they bring up the school's profile and game.

And there's the little matter of the law.

It is against the law in the United States to discriminate against a child on the basis of learning disability.

When schools play fast and loose with their test modifications, they cheat their students and they cheat their schools on the whole. Worse still, schools that discriminate against students with learning disabilities violate their (students') protections under the Civil Rights for Persons With Disabilities Act.

When children with testing modifications are pulled out from their regular classrooms, which, unfortunately, still carries a stigma, in compliance with their 504 documentation or IEPs (Individualized Educational Plans), they should be transferred to environments at least as harmonious as those from which they were extricated.

At the very least, desks and chairs should be made available.

Discrimination in educational settings rarely surprises me because New York City public schools violate the rights of students with great frequency and appalling impunity. To know, however, that an eighth-grade child at a "gifted" school took a state-wide examination while seated on the floor, in a room in which desks and chairs were not available to him, shocked me somehow.

It surprised me to see a school with a decent reputation take such risk when moving six desks into the drama room would have eliminated the problem.

I have been bouncing around New York City schools as an educator and parent for 30 years. I've seen tragic. This is not tragic. The students taking the eighth-grade English Language Arts test over the course of three days are bright students. I know for certain that at least one of them has intelligence in the high superior range. Come June of this year, all will be graduated. Each has a good high school placement. They're just getting going on their senior slumps.

But even those with learning disability should have been afforded desks on which to write the state-wide ELA test.

I heard about these testing conditions at dinner time on the first (Tuesday) day of testing. About 12 hours later, at 7:30 a.m. the following morning, I spoke with the school's principal. It was a cordial conversation. I made the call as a courtesy. I figured she'd want to know. The principal did not dispute my account of things. She didn't sound surprised, nor did she sound alarmed. She did offer to look into the matter. I figured she'd want to make an appearance in that room and fix the problem.

The conditions remained unchanged over the course of the two following days. A kid sat on the floor. A few sat in the bleachers. One lucky girl drew a table and a chair. Nothing had been done. Perhaps there is a reason the six desks and chairs the six eighth-grade students normally occupy could not have been moved into the drama room for the duration of the testing. I would have been glad to throw on my sweatpants, run over to the school and help.

There was no intentional malice in this, but I found the situation alarming. If a screened school for "gifted" children in one of the (putatively) best school districts in the city can exhibit such flagrant disregard for the rights of children with (in this case, mild) disability, what else is falling through the cracks?

What happens to the city's many victims of educational malpractice who live in less affluent areas and failing school zones and districts?

A school has little control over whether a child preparing for a standardized test gets a good night sleep or a proper meal prior to taking a standardized test. But schools can offer support for children while they test them, and schoolsmust respect the educational rights of all children on their rolls -- even those whose need for extra time and quieter settings poses logistical problems.

So what does this relatively benign failure tell us? It tells us that even at its best, the New York City DOE often flunks at putting its students first. And I fear that it reveals a very faulty system-wide zeitgeist, giving us a glimpse of a gestalt which is so wrong.

Coming soon: More on standardized testing and the NYC DOE.