Monday, July 12, 2010

10 Queens Pupils Got Second Chance at State Test by Trip Gabriel -

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Multiple choice: New York State’s fifth-grade social studies test was given Nov. 16 and 17. After students completed the test, which of the following should NOT have occurred:

(A) Students waited patiently to learn the results.
(B) Students enjoyed the week without worrying how they had done.
(C) Students received their test booklets back the next week and were allowed to answer omitted questions.

The correct answer is C, but that is what happened at a Queens elementary school after the principal ordered that 10 students get a second chance at the test a week after handing it in, an apparent violation of state regulations.

The principal, Karen Zuvic, told members of her staff at Public School 86 that she was making “an executive decision” to allow students to complete unanswered questions, according to several teachers and administrators at the school.

“There was an uproar because of course it’s not fair, and the teachers were quite upset,” said a teacher who was present. Ms. Zuvic, several recalled, told the group, “Not a word of this is to leave the room.”

Investigators from the city’s Education Department interviewed Ms. Zuvic and members of her staff last year after receiving a complaint, but some teachers, having heard nothing since, wondered if the case was being ignored. The investigation “certainly will be concluded and is still under way,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the deputy schools chancellor for performance and accountability. “I don’t think it will be that long.”

Across the country, states and school districts have pursued cases against teachers and principals suspected of cheating to raise students’ scores on standardized tests. Critics of testing point to the pressure on educators to produce results that are used to determine their merit pay, tenure and career advancement.

But the fifth-grade social studies exam — unlike the New York State math and English tests — is a relatively low-stakes test that does not figure into city or state accountability measures. For that reason, one P.S. 86 staff member said, Ms. Zuvic’s motive was less to improve her own standing than to allow students to raise scores that would be entered in their records.

Ms. Zuvic, 58, who has been principal since 2005, said in an interview that she had allowed the students to return to the test because each had omitted an entire section. She blamed teachers who were proctoring the test for failing to point out unanswered questions, as the state testing manual requires.

“The students prepared for this test, and they shouldn’t walk away with a lower score because a teacher didn’t do their job proctoring,” Ms. Zuvic said.

Allowing a second chance at a test is against regulations, and educators can lose their licenses as the ultimate sanction, according to a spokesman for the New York State Education Department. Principals are required to report irregularities to Albany. The 10 students’ test results at P.S. 86, out of some 220 at the school, have been invalidated.

In 2007, in its most recent Quality Review evaluation of P.S. 86, the city called Ms. Zuvic “an effective leader who is well respected by the school community.”

But in interviews, a number of staff members described their principal as an authoritarian who inspired fear. “The attitude is, if you don’t like it, there’s the door,” said one teacher, who, like others, refused to be identified for fear of retaliation.

Reflecting its immigrant neighborhood, Jamaica, the school’s 944 students speak more than two dozen languages at home, and more than 75 percent are poor, according to Education Department records. Despite the obstacles, the students have performed well on state math tests, scoring close to the state median. Performance on the social studies test — which asks questions like what method of travel was improved by Robert Fulton and what the stripes of the American flag represent — has been below the median.

When the principal learned that some fifth graders did not complete the test last fall, attributing the omissions to teachers, “that just drove her bananas,” one staff member said, adding, “She blew. ‘How dare they?’ ”

But some teachers disputed that the test had been proctored incorrectly and that students had omitted entire sections. One teacher said that after the students were told that they would be given extra time to finish the test, they were gathered together. “We went into my class,” the teacher said. “I said, ‘O.K., guys, turn to the last part.’ So they turned to the last part and they said, ‘We did this.’ So I thought, Why do I have you here? I said, ‘Flip through and see if there are parts you didn’t do.’ Each had one question that wasn’t done, or whatever.”