Sunday, November 15, 2009

Queens Parents Debate DOE Promotion Criteria by Lisa Fogarty - Queens Chronicle

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At Queens Borough President Helen Marshall’s Parent Advisory Board meeting Tuesday night, the question about whether public school students are being subjected to over-testing for once played second fiddle to an even more pertinent one: if schools are going to continue state testing and months of preparation, just how reliable are the scores? What’s more, how big a role should test grades play when determining whether a student should be held back for the year?

In an effort to base grade promotions in elementary schools on objective, measurable standards, the Department of Education has proposed ending social promotion — the action of passing students even if they haven’t fulfilled their academic requirements — in grades 4 and 6. The Panel for Educational Policy will vote Thursday in Queens on ending the practice, which has already ceased in grades 3, 5, 7 and 8.

The new benchmark for moving on to the next grade relies heavily on state test exam scores. In order to be promoted, students must achieve at least a Level 2, which the DOE still considers below the standard, on math and english language arts assessments. The tests are graded 1 through 4, with the lowest number indicating a student’s grade is far below the state standard. Students who do not meet these requirements are given additional opportunities to succeed by completing a series of classroom-based activities, called a portfolio, which come with a statewide standard scoring rubric, according to Jennifer Bell-Eilwanger, senior adviser on research and policy at the DOE. Summer school sessions are also an option, with the chance to retake the test at the end of the session, she said.

These cases, which Bell-Eilwanger called “rare,” also apply to students who passed the test by only a few points, have poor attendance records or aren’t completing their coursework.

Many educators and parents argued the DOE’s procedure was faulty for several reasons, including the fact that, more often than not, state test score results aren’t received by schools until the end of the year — far too late to be able to resolve the issues that school year.

The scores themselves, they said, are also too broad to be accorded such weight — an accusation corroborated by DOE data. In New York State in 2009, only 2.8 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 scored Level 1 on their English Language Arts exam. Comparatively, 28.3 percent scored Level 2, 62.8 percent were in Level 3 and 6.1 percent scored Level 4.

“Everyone scores Level 2 or above — what’s the criteria here?” asked one parent.

Another concern among the group was the DOE timeline for alerting parents of at-risk children. Although parent-teacher conferences take place in the fall, “Promotion In Doubt” letters aren’t mailed out until late January or early February.

“It shouldn’t take three to four months to find out what their problems are,” Marshall said.

The borough president also urged the DOE to reconsider the effectiveness of its current summer school sessions. “Children need real help,” she said. “If you’re going to send them to summer school, make it an enrichment program.”

Marge Kolb, president of the President’s Council for District 24, questioned a school’s ability to help students who are left behind. She reminded the group of the Eight-Plus program, a discontinued DOE program whereby eighth grade students who were not promoted could spend the first half of ninth grade completing their requirements so they could start high school in January and thus not be held back.

“Kids are always going to be left back, they’ve always been left back,” Kolb said. “But they go back to the same situation the next year. What are you doing about that?”

Bell-Eilwanger said several tools have been put in place to help struggling students, including the use of guidance counselor to work directly with at-risk students, ongoing assessments of their classwork, and inquiry teams — groups of teachers who can suggest teaching strategies to the student’s primary instructor that might help the child with his or her personal needs.

According to a $3.3 million study conducted by the RAND Corp. over the course of five years, fifth graders who scored a level 1 or 2 in fourth grade performed better under the new DOE policy of ending social promotion than comparable students who were not subject to the standards. The study also found that students who were retained experienced no negative socio-emotional effects when subject to the policy — a finding some parents feared was inconclusive because the report didn’t incorporate high school students.

Bell-Eilwanger said the RAND study also made important discoveries about what methods work for students. Saturday prep and Summer Success academies, while effective, require at least seven sessions to have an impact on a student’s grades. Small group tutoring and one-on-one tutoring were found to be most successful.

With the room still buzzing about Gov. David Paterson’s proposal to cut even more school spending, it perhaps came as little surprise that even the RAND study evoked criticism.

“One-on-one tutoring is just an acronym for smaller class sizes,” said David Quintana, who formerly represented District 27, before adding that the money used to do the study may have been better spent in classrooms.

The PEP vote will be on Thursday, Nov. 12 at 6 p.m. at P.S. 128 at 69-26 65th Drive, Middle Village.