Monday, June 20, 2005

The Ultimate In High-Stakes Testing

The ultimate in high-stakes tests are now being given in several areas around the country. The idea is simple: If the student fails the test, then he or she repeats the grade. Not surprisingly, this has sparked a fierce debate:

New York City fifth graders faced a nerve-racking challenge when they sat down in April to take a key citywide achievement test. For the first time, their scores would count. Pass, and they'd move on to sixth grade. Fail, and they would likely be held back.

Such high-stakes exams are becoming more of a fixture in American school systems, and a growing number have learned that the threat of retention can be a strong incentive - although the effect on kids who are held back remains a topic of dispute.

Some New York kids will get a letter over the next few days inviting them to summer school, but most will have reason to celebrate, officials say.

The number of fifth graders who tested proficient in reading on the citywide exam soared 19.5 percent this year - the first in which the class had to pass the test to advance a grade. The number proficient in math climbed 15.2 percent, the school district said this month.

A year earlier, 14,695 fifth graders failed one or both of the tests, but with a grade promotion on the line, that number dropped to 5,636.

New York is learning what some other cities have already learned. Chicago saw achievement test scores rise in the late 1990s after it began requiring children in the third, sixth and eighth grades to pass to advance to the next grade. The best gains came among students in danger of being held back.

Florida saw scores tick higher two years ago after it began requiring third graders to pass a reading test to advance a grade. Texas implemented a similar requirement for third and fifth graders, and also saw scores rise.

"When you have a tough retention policy, at every grade level, the children get better," said Paul Vallas, who was the schools chief in Chicago when it adopted high-stakes testing and now leads the public schools in Philadelphia.

New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said school officials are still looking for the best ways to help those children, but the answer isn't returning to automatic promotions.

A better solution, he said, is devoting more attention to children before they fail.

"The level of our intervention is much more sophisticated now than it has ever been," he said.

In the past two years the city has boosted aid to struggling students, including holding extra classes on Saturdays.

The most recent tests showed that pass rates were higher among students who attended the extra day of sessions. Scores for third, sixth and seventh graders also went up, even though only the third and fifth graders needed to pass a test to advance.

Other help has come from "intervention" experts like Patrick Kutschke, a reading teacher at Public School 101 in East Harlem.

Kutschke spends his time working with groups of five or six children having trouble mastering basic skills. This week, he assessed children headed for summer school, trying to find out why they were having trouble.

Those that are opposed to this particular type of testing point-out that those students who repeat one or more grades are much more likely to fall behind and drop-out of school altogether:
Over time, many of the children forced to repeat a grade fell further behind, dropped out, or languished in special education classes, said University of Chicago researcher Melissa Roderick. Part of the problem, she said, was a lack of remedial help.

"These kids were really, really, really far behind," Roderick said. "For the kids who are being left back, retention does not work."

"These kids were really, really, really far behind," Roderick said. "For the kids who are being left back, retention does not work."
At the California junior high school where I teach, we do have a written "retention policy." But this policy exists only on paper. In practice, we "promote" to the next grade-level even those children who have failed every class and have refused to even attempt school work. (Parents can "veto" any recommendation to retain.) In our 900+ pupil campus, no children have been retained in the past few years.

Social promotion is very much alive and well in Southeastern California.
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