Amid Good School-Test News, A Troubling Truth

May 24, 2005 | Newsday |

When the New York City Department of Education announced last week that fourth graders achieved the highest one-year gains ever on the state's English Language Arts exam, there was cause for celebration. The buzz around fourth graders' results implies that we have some answers about what helps kids improve. Yet a close look at what happened to eighth graders raises worrisome questions.

Eighth graders' results declined slightly compared with 2004. But the bad news isn't just that eighth-grade scores went down year-to-year. It's that, over time, a single group of kids has slipped further from the goal.

In 2001, 44 percent of city fourth graders passed the English exam. This is hardly an impressive number. But if these students didn't do particularly well as fourth graders in 2001, they did even worse as eighth graders this year, when only 33 percent of them passed.

After last week's announcement, we heard a range of explanations for what went right for fourth graders. We heard that elementary school teachers and kids put in extra effort, lots of it, to raise scores. This effort included after-school tutoring, hiring more teachers, additional homework and Saturday classes. One principal cited spending $150,000 on extra help for fourth graders alone. We also heard that ending social promotion for third graders had an impact. It's probably the case that a combination of these factors contributed to the fourth graders' success.

So, what went wrong for eighth graders? Did they get extra help, too? If not, why not? If so, why didn't it work? Did the Department of Education focus so much on gearing elementary school students up to pass the exam that middle school students didn't get what they needed?

In reality, we can't know for sure. Standardized testing is a tricky subject. Its name suggests that there's absolute consistency and clarity regarding what tests measure. But that can be hard to gauge in practice. Standardized tests have been used in schools since the early part of the 20th century, but rarely have they been received without controversy or debate. What we do know is that, with funding and jobs on the line, New York City schools have no choice but to embrace standards and perhaps use both engineering and educational intervention to improve scores.

City education officials already have committed to bettering eighth graders' poor results. The department is funding a new $40-million middle-school intervention strategy designed to bring some of what's working in elementary schools to the upper grades.

Certainly the extra attention and help in strengthening future middle school students' skills can be positive. But if this extra effort is not extended to all students, if only some students benefit while others languish, the promise of standardized testing goes unfulfilled.

One of the things standardized tests are supposed to do is identify the weaknesses of a given class and provide feedback on areas where teachers need to focus their attention. But it's unclear whether this is happening. When 2005's eighth graders took the English exam as fourth graders in 2001, we had clear signs that they needed help. Four years later, they clearly did not get enough. If our reaction to their failing is to devote resources to improving scores for future middle school students, we are missing part of the point of the tests. We should be helping this year's eighth graders succeed next year as ninth graders.

In today's standards-obsessed environment, New York is trying its best to make testing work for students. According to a nationwide report, the state is above average in setting English standards that are clearly stated and educationally relevant. New York City was one of the first school systems to embrace standards and has been actively improving its approach to testing.

But the real measure of success is how well students in all grades do throughout their education, not just year-to-year comparisons for a given grade. We can't afford to lose sight of that.

Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a public policy organization in Manhattan.