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If everything goes according to plan, students in some 200 schools will be taking diagnostic tests every six to eight weeks beginning this fall.
The tests – in English language arts and math – will be given to students in schools that volunteer to be part of a new "empowerment zone," in which principals are given autonomy in exchange for agreeing to meet certain "performance targets." All schools in the city will be expected to give the tests the following year, in the fall of 2007.
The new assessments are intended to shift the focus from “high-stakes” tests -- tests given once a year that determine student promotion -- to a broader range of information about student improvement, parent satisfaction, and the climate within schools, said James Liebman, the new chief accountability officer for the Department of Education. He emphasized that the tests will be used for diagnostic purposes, to identify students’ weaknesses and allow teachers to address them before students must face high-stakes annual state tests.
In kindergarten through second grade, the assessments will resemble the Early Childhood Literacy Assessment System (ECLAS) now in use, Liebman said in a telephone interview. In these, a teacher sits with an individual child and poses questions about concepts such as letter and word recognition.
In grades 3-8, schools will use bubble-sheets or computerized tests similar to those currently offered by Princeton Review. Parents may read the results of these multiple choice tests online with a special password. The DOE is still in the process of developing the high school assessments. Schools will be able to propose alternatives to standardized test measures offered by the DOE “if they can prove they can show progress and differentiate among kids,” Liebman said.
There are several main differences between the new assessments and existing ones. One difference is frequency: ECLAS and Princeton Review tests are now offered twice a year; the new tests will be offered five times a year. Another difference is turnaround time: Results will be available within three days, allowing teachers to fine tune their instruction. Some test results now take months to be made available. A third difference is the relevance: Teachers complain that current Princeton Review assessments are so different from the state tests that they can’t predict who will do well on a state test based on score from Princeton Review. The new tests will be better aligned with state tests, Liebman said.
Even before the details of the plan were made public, some parents complained about the idea of more frequent testing. “Parents should be as angry as they are about the cell phones,” said Jane Hirschmann, head of the anti-testing group Time Out from Testing. More than 100 parents met this month at the Julia Richman Education Complex on the Upper East Side to organize a protest. The anti-testing group will meet again June 6 at 6 p.m in the same place.
Parents at the meeting said excessive emphasis on standardized tests means that children are losing their love for learning and ability to think for themselves. They said frequent testing is demoralizing.
Lauren Abrams, the parent of a kindergartner at Brooklyn New School, said she is concerned that the testing diverts resources from the schools themselves. “$25 million may not sound like a lot, but it is,” she said, referring to the amount of money the DOE has raised to fund the first stage of the new testing program.
For Kate Dunn, who has a 3rd grader and a 4th grader at Central Park East II in Manhattan, it's not the money but the time devoted to testing that she finds galling -- time that she says would only increase under the DOE's new plan.
Liebman responds: “We don’t see these as tests. They are not high stakes whatsoever for kids or for schools.” Rather, the new assessment system is designed to help parents and teacher get timely information that will help them reach kids better. He says the new tests, unlike current ones, will give parents prompt and clear information about each child’s progress. The DOE’s goal is to return detailed information to teachers within three business days, and Liebman hopes that schools will ultimately be able to relay information instantly using Palm Pilots, as happens already in some schools.
The city will release one-page school reports about student progress, and parents will be able to log into a website that will have up-to-date information about their child and their school. With more “transparency and visibility,” parents will have incentives to exercise their “voice as well as choice,” Liebman said, with parents pressuring their schools to make improvements an intended outcome of the new initiative.
How the tests will be used
The new measures are intended to evaluate schools based on individual students’ improvement over time. If schools move students in the bottom one-third forward, schools will get extra credit, taking away the incentive for schools to push troublesome students out, Liebman noted.
Another facet of the program is a system-wide qualitative review, which will at first be conducted by Cambridge Associates, a multinational consulting firm that specializes in assisting educational and nonprofit institutions. In the future, the DOE hopes to use “in-house, peer reviewers,” to conduct what Liebman called “show-me reviews,” he said.
The new testing regimen will be piloted in about 200 schools, some of which made up what has been called the Autonomy Zone. Beginning next year, these schools will be called “empowerment schools,” and principals will have to agree to four-year contracts that set out specific performance targets in exchange for flexibility in making budget and curriculum decisions. In a letter to principals on May 23, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said 353 schools have applied to become “empowerment schools.”
Teachers and principals cautious
Teachers and principals are reacting cautiously to the new initiatives. Spokesmen for the United Federation of Teachers (the teachers's union) and the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators (the principals' union) said they weren't consulted about the DOE's plans and have little information about it.
“It remains to be seen whether [principals in the empowerment zone] will get to do everything they’re promised,” in part because the separate contract for empowerment schools has still not been revealed to principals, CSA spokesman Rich Relkin said.
"In theory it sounds like it might be a valuable tool for assessment but it remains to be seen how it will be implemented," said UFT spokesman Ron Davis. At the same time, he said teachers are increasingly restive about the volume of testing. "It's beginning to be a bit much."
--Philissa Cramer, May 24, 2006
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