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The Daily Star - Saturday, July 13, 2002

 Quality is not equal across the state

By Johnathan Chase



In its attempt to raise standards, the New York State Education Department has overlooked a crucial element of fair and reliable assessment.

While the standardized exams may be identical, the students and their communities clearly are not. The suburban community, with active, concerned parents and a wealth of resources, varies greatly from rural and urban communities with often-minimal parental support and resources. The reliability and validity of standardized testing hinge directly on the capability of all schools to properly identify students who are deficient in basic knowledge, skills and abilities, and then provide appropriate instruction, interventions and support services to help "level the playing field."

NYSED tries to accommodate differences between communities and students through regulatory language that provides for "local control" in the design and implementation of school programs and services. A May 5 Q & A document regarding Comprehensive Attendance Policies states, "Local education agencies can establish local guidelines ... that reflect local education and community needs, philosophy and priorities."

While local control allows for much-needed discretion and flexibility, it also ensures that students across the state do not receive equivalent instruction and academic assistance. This paradox directly undermines efforts to uniformly raise standards and should lead people to question the efficacy and fairness of the standardized testing program in New York State.

Recognizing that many students were struggling to meet higher standards, the Regents adopted new regulations in 1999 requiring each district to provide additional instruction and support services to disadvantaged students. Known as Academic Intervention Services, or AIS, these are critical services designed to assist weaker students in meeting the state learning standards. NYSED allows each district to develop its own AIS. Hence, the quality and effectiveness of this crucial program varies from district to district. Ideally, allocation of staff and critical support services should be based entirely on the educational needs of individual students. In reality, the scope and breadth of many school programs is subject to budgetary limitations and based on "ability to pay" rather than the best interest of students.

During AIS informational and training sessions, NYSED representatives have stated unequivocally that AIS should supplement regular instruction and these services must not be scheduled during the time a student attends a credit-bearing class. With limited staff, facilities and funding, how will schools find the resources, space and time to provide these additional academic services during the school day?

The answer is clear, by reducing or eliminating courses and curriculum that have been historically viewed as expendable and frivolous. The so-called "specials" (music, dance, theater, art) already devalued and marginalized, will be placed on endangered-species lists as districts search for ways to safely "diminish instructional time" without compromising preparation for the standardized tests.

Did anyone really think a standardized test could identify and measure the emerging skills and talents of a young Rembrandt, Pavarotti or Picasso?

Schools should be in the business of creating diverse and stimulating learning environments and experiences where a child's athletic, artistic and creative talents are free to flourish and thrive. The arts have always been the fuel that feeds the flame of exploration and inquiry. As Assemblyman Steve Sanders, chair of the Committee on Education, wrote, "... the arts are often the impetus to inspire children and teen-agers to succeed academically, while also increasing their motivation, their self-worth and their appreciation of living in New York City ..."

It is important to note that beginning in 2005, all entering ninth-graders with learning disabilities will be required to pass five Regents Exams to graduate. According to the March 2002 Information Bulletin, published by New York State United Teachers, "The state Education Department is authorized to approve a variance that enables a school district, BOCES or approved private school to exceed special education class size limits, chronological age range limits, or the number of students to be assigned to a resource room or consultant teacher in programs for students with disabilities." These variances should raise serious concerns regarding the quality and uniformity of instructional programs and support services provided for special education students throughout the state.

Does NYSED really believe that equity and parity of instructional programs and services can be maintained on a statewide level through mandate and decree alone? It is fanciful to hold all students accountable to a uniform set of standards when there are, at best, rudimentary guidelines and safeguards in place to ensure that each student has received equivalent preparation and training for the state exams.

To put it another way, the current system of assessment makes as much sense as placing a large group of students in an abandoned warehouse and then setting it ablaze to assess their survival skills.

Actually, the analogy is not quite accurate. In order to replicate conditions and restrictions placed on students, you would first have to brick in all the windows and then blockade all exits but one. You would then have to randomly divide students into weaker and stronger groups and prepare students for the test by distributing different sets of survival tools and supplies.

The "better prepared" groups receive a survival pack that includes a fire extinguisher, blueprint for the building and a cell phone. While the "least prepared" groups would be given a pack that included a water gun, a manual for programming a VCR, and two cans connected by a piece of string.

Do standardized tests measure the quality of school programs? Do they measure the achievement and educational needs of the students? Do they help lead educators to improved program designs? What they only do (and even that is subject to debate) is measure how well the students have been prepared for the test.

Are we really to believe that every student who fails standardized tests is somehow inferior and less likely to succeed in life? After all, while numbers of disadvantaged students may not pass the state exams, in many cases they have actually worked harder trying to "stay alive" and utilized critical thinking and problem-solving skills in a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to safely reach the only available exit.

We should prepare our children to be thinking, caring and responsible citizens who can make meaningful and lasting contributions to our challenging and vibrant world. They need to be taught how to make quality choices as they collaborate with others.

We can only hope that their combined efforts will provide for a productive, safer and more inclusive community while they avoid self-defeating attitudes and behaviors that so easily entrap children and young adults.

The school experience should not be reduced to lessons in, at best, tolerating innumerable uncomfortable situations where the constant rationale is, "Don't you want to pass the Regents?" and "You need to know this for the test!" The whole school experience has been diminished and transformed into a forced march toward a "state designated performance level."

To ease the transition to higher standards, NYSED has already watered down the caliber of these exams and degraded their quality through gimmicks such as a "low pass" of 55, grading on a curve, and component retesting. To help students achieve higher standards, many schools have implemented after-school programs, Saturday sessions, summer classes, even a fifth year of high school. Now students can look forward to spending even more time in school drearily reviewing old Regents exams.


Johnathan Chase is a middle school social studies teacher and president-elect of the Edmeston Central School Faculty Association. He is also founder and president of the Musicians United For Songs In The Classroom Inc.