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Assemblyman Takes Aim at City Rules on 3rd Graders
April 20, 2004 | By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
On the eve of a citywide reading test that will determine whether thousands of New York City third graders are promoted, the chairman of the State Assembly Education Committee said yesterday that he would propose a law requiring school districts to screen thoroughly for learning disabilities and vision and hearing problems before sending children to summer school or forcing them to repeat a grade.
Although the law would apply statewide, the committee chairman, Steven Sanders, a Manhattan Democrat, made clear that it was directed at New York City. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has imposed controversial new promotion rules for third graders that are tied to the annual reading and mathematics exams. The reading test is today; the math test is next Tuesday.
"We have got to screen that kid to make sure the reason why that youngster is doing poorly doesn't have something to do with a learning disability or developmental disability," Mr. Sanders said in a telephone interview. "The fact that a kid in the second or third grade is assigned to a seat in the back of the room and can't see or hear clearly, sometimes it's as simple as that."
Mr. Sanders pointed to dyslexia, autism and attention deficit disorders as common factors in academic struggles and cited federal statistics showing that as many as 10 percent of school children have some form of learning disability or attention deficit disorder.
City education officials said they had not seen a draft of the bill, but warned against directives that could prove costly to the city.
"We will await details of the legislation, but would caution against unfunded mandates," said Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the department. "In New York City, provisions are already in place to assist students with learning disabilities and hearing or vision problems."
With anxiety over the tests running high yesterday, some parents said they planned to protest by keeping their children home - a strategy that Mayor Bloomberg described as counterproductive.
"Look, the kids are going to have to take the test if they want to graduate to the next year," he said during a news conference at City Hall yesterday. "Parents that want to grand stand and get their picture in the paper by holding their child back and not taking the test, they're going to have to take the test anyway."
Separately, opponents of standardized testing, who have been some of the most vocal critics of the mayor's new promotion rules, charged yesterday that the third-grade reading test was set up to guarantee that a substantial portion of children would fail.
Under the mayor's plan, any third grader scoring at Level 1, the lowest of four rankings, on either the reading or math test would face the possibility of having to repeat the grade. There are exceptions for non-English speaking students and special education students, as well as an appeals process by which students can be promoted based on class work.
At a rally yesterday evening outside the Department of Education headquarters in Lower Manhattan, critics of the mayor's plan pointed to the technical manual for last year's reading test and said it included evidence that 21 percent of students were guaranteed to score in Level 1.
Many of the demonstrators then filed inside for a monthly meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy, the successor to the Board of Education.
At several points, the demonstrators - still furious over the mayor's firing of two panel members to get the third-grade promotion rules approved - disrupted the meeting, chanting, "No to the test." Among them was City Councilman Charles Barron, who angrily complained, "We have a test where 11 questions favor white children." He added, "This test is racist."
Jane Hirschmann, a leader of the antitesting group Time Out From Testing, demanded to know how many panel members had read the technical manual before voting last month to approve the mayor's promotion rules.
City education officials and a spokesman for Harcourt Assessment, the company that created the test, rejected the allegations and said that the critics had misread the technical manual.
Lori Mei, the top city official in charge of testing, said the statistics in the manual reflected the difference in performance among white, black and Hispanic children on last year's test. "Is there an achievement gap?" she asked. "Yes, we know there is an achievement gap."
In an interview after the meeting, Ms. Mei said that questions were carefully screened to be fair. But she said that city officials had not gone back to analyze several questions on last year's test that were answered correctly by far more white students than black or Hispanic students.
Ms. Mei insisted that all children could score high enough to be promoted, and that the test was not tied to norms that would set up a specified number of children to fail. "Every third grader," she said, "can achieve a Level 2 or Level 3."
At the panel meeting last night, Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein sought to reassure nervous parents. "Believe me," he said, "If children are performing at Level 2, they will be promoted, regardless of test scores."
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