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Ask Judy
Wednesday, 11 April 2012 12:25

No vacation from test prep

It's spring break so why are so many kids showing up at school this week? Test prep, that's why! Schools have sidelined regular lessons and ramped up test prep this year as the stakes for improved scores on state exams continue to rise. Some schools brought in test prep companies and 25 schools have opened their doors during vacation so kids can continue to study for the exams.

On a chilly morning in April, when most schools were closed, students at PS 189 in Crown Heights filed into school to prep and practice for the tests.

Many of the parents shepherding their children through the doors said they appreciated the extra preparation.

“I think it was a good idea,” said Stacy Alexander, whose daughter is in 3rd grade. “I think they should do a lot of reading, but they also need the practice tests.”

But PS 189 students have been prepping for weeks. Instead of regular classes, children took practice tests every morning in March, teachers and parents said. Reading was Monday and Tuesday, math was Thursday and Friday, and most Wednesdays they took both. The afternoons were saved for more test prep, focusing on questions the kids got wrong.

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State-mandated standardized tests for students in grades 3-8 begin on the Tuesday right after spring break. There are three days of reading (ELA) tests: April 17, 18 and 19 and three days of math the next week: April 25, 26 and 27.

Have the teachers been spending lots of time preparing kids for the increasingy high-stakes exams? Your child's test results help determine the "grade" his teacher will get on her evaluation. the grade his school gets on its Progress Report and even whether the school could be closed down or "turned around".

For students in transition from elementary to middle school and from middle to high school, results on the 4th and 7th grade exams can be a determining factor in where they are accepted!

Given all the testing mania, are teachers being pressured to "teach to the test"? Are they weaving test prep into classroom lessons or has test prep become the lesson?

How has your school handled test prep this year. Too much? Too little? Just right? Take our poll!

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Thursday, 29 March 2012 20:55

Parents petition against testing

A group of parents have launched a petition drive to try and reverse the increasing importance of standardized exams in city schools. In particular, they are opposed to a new law that could get teachers fired if their students' state test scores don't increase sufficiently.

"Parents want their children to have the opportunity to learn, to think critically, to engage in meaningful relationships with teachers, and to have positive school experiences," the Brooklyn-based group of parents write.

They also do not want to see a repeat of the Teacher Data Reports, which used state exams to evaluate teachers and then made the dubious ratings public.

They've gotten about 1,000 signatures by tabling outside schools, mostly in Brooklyn. Now there's an online petition you can sign if you want to join their effort.

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Wednesday, 21 March 2012 14:52

Using exams to judge teachers, schools

Sparks flew at the Brooklyn Secondary School for Collaborative Studies on Monday night as the chief academic officer defended the city's heavy reliance on standardized exams to judge schools, principals and teachers.

Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky was under fire all night from the crowd in the packed school auditorium in Carroll Gardens. The two principals on the panel who said they believed the testing regime had damaged education in city schools.

The former head of the Office of Accountability kept his cool and acknowledged that the current state exams did not do a good job at measuring "critical thinking," but he denied that the exams were overly influential and said  that better tests were coming. Why, then, has the Bloomberg administration made such a public spectacle of the A through F grading system, which is mostly based on student progress on the exams, if they aren't very good? Polakow-Suransky never answered that question.

You can read more about the event, which was moderated by Insideschools reporter Meredith Kolodner, on  GothamSchools and SchoolBook. Watch a video clip of the meeting from the Grassroots Education Movement:

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Tuesday, 28 February 2012 14:05

Teacher rated "Below Average" speaks out

Vasilios Biniarls is a math teacher at a Queens middle school program for gifted students, The Academy at PS 122. He wrote to Insideschools after his name was published in the press as a "Below Average" teacher. Here's his view. Insideschools will not be publishing or linking to the Teacher Data Reports.

The recent release of NYC's Teacher Data Reports (TDR) has stirred up a wide range of responses from all of the relevant stakeholders in our city's school system. As a teacher whose name was published in the local media with a corresponding characterization of "Below Average," I am upset, angry, even demoralized. After a great deal of personal reflection, I feel compelled to reach out to the parents of the students I teach.

For me, it is important for people to know that I teach in the same school that I attended as a child; it is the same school that both of my siblings went to as well. As three children of immigrant parents, we owe a debt of gratitude to our alma mater, and I strongly feel that the experiences that we had at P.S. 122 were instrumental in paving the way to a life of higher education.  I would do anything for my school.

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Thursday, 23 February 2012 20:42

Why teacher ratings don't tell much

The latest serving of data-driven mania from the city Education Department will likely produce screaming headlines about the city's "worst teachers." This virtual wall of shame (and fame) will live online for years to come. But does it actually help parents to find the best schools and teachers? Not really. Here's why.

The ratings are based on a complicated formula that compares how much 4th through 8th-grade students have improved on standardized tests compared with how well they were predicted to do. The system tries to take into consideration factors like race, poverty and disabilities. Teachers are then graded on a curve. It's known as "value-added," because it tries show how much value an individual teacher has added to a student's test scores.

Here are our top five reasons they won't help and why you won't be seeing them on Insideschools. Please add your own, or tell us why you think they will be useful.

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Wednesday, 15 February 2012 15:38

Specialized prep open to 6th & 7th graders

A prep program for high-achieving, low-income middle school students aimed at bettering their chance for acceptance to one of the city's specialized high schools is open to both 6th and 7th graders this year. Previously the Specialized High School Institute (SHSI) 16-month prep course began only in the spring of 6th grade and continued until students took the test as 8th-graders in October.

The Department of Education issued new guidelines for the program now called DREAM - SHSI. Despite concerns that the program would be curtailed because of budget cuts, the DOE expanded it, from 10 sites to 18 to include both 6th-graders and a new class of 7th-graders. Seventh-graders will get twice weekly prep classes this spring and 38 sessions between July and October when they take the exam for entrance into one of eight specialized exam schools.

"It's a good thing because now there are multiple entry points," said Stanley Ng, a Brooklyn parent and member of the citywide high school parent council. Some parents don't hear about the program in 6th grade, he said, and now they may have another chance to enter.

Time is short to apply. The deadline to submit paperwork is Feb. 28, just two days after the winter break. Schools should have a list of eligible 6th and 7th graders, but some students could miss out on the chance to apply if they have not filled out free lunch forms. Many schools with a high poverty rate don't require all families to fill out lunch forms. Those families must get an income verification form from their school and submit it by Feb. 28. Private school students may also apply. They should download the application and income form and return by March 2.

Students invited to attend the program must meet economic and academic guidelines. They must be eligible for free lunch, have good attendance, and test at Level 3 or 4 on state exams (exact cut-off numbers are posted on the DOE's website).  Since there are more eligible children than there are slots in some areas of the city, the DOE will conduct a lottery to determine who may attend.

Seventh-graders who join the program now will get approximately 38 prep sessions before the October exam. Sixth-graders will be in the program for 16 months, attending weekly sessions from April to June, Monday-Thursday sessions in July and August and twice weekly sessions during the next school year.

DREAM - SHSI (stands for Determination Resilience Enthusiasm Ambition and Motivation) is overseen by the DOE's Office for Equity and Access headed by Dr. Dorita Gibson.
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Thursday, 26 January 2012 13:26

It's Regents Week...where's the party?

I have a modest proposal for the state and city officials responsible for placing Regents exams a week after finals: Could you please flip the schedule and schedule Regents before finals?

While not all city high school students take Regents exams in January, there are no classes at all in most New York City high schools during the state exams week. Yet nearly all take finals, or midterms in many of their classes a week before.

That means that last week, my two high schoolers had multiple midterm or final exams on the same day, nearly every day. They stayed up way too late studying – or, at least I think that's what they were doing. Their bedroom became a landfill of crumpled paper, flashcards, calculators and notebooks. Tired and cranky, they complained they didn't have adequate time to prepare.

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Tuesday, 24 January 2012 20:00

Schools must admit gifted special ed kids

Parents of kids with lopsided abilities despair of finding the right educational fit: for the math whiz who has dyslexia; the child with a photographic memory who can’t sit still; the ace test-taker who struggles to get along with her peers. These kids are Twice Exceptional, often abbreviated as 2e. They’re super smart, but profoundly challenged. Most have Individualed Education Programs (IEP), specifying special education services. They just don’t fit into the public school system.

Now the Education Department is telling schools they must admit and meet the needs of these students within the context of their school as part of the special education reform rolled out last year. On January 13, Chancellor Dennis Walcott sent a letter to principals saying: “choice, non-zoned and screened schools will be asked to admit and serve a percentage of students with disabilities equivalent to the percentage of students with disabilities in their district or borough.” said Lauren Katzman, director of special education at the DOE. “There have been targets [enrollment numbers] all along. The change is we’re saying you have to meet your targets.”

On January 19, dozens of parents turned out for a meeting hosted by the Citywide Council on Special Education (CCSE) featuring a panel of educators and Education Department officials including Katzman. They were not surprised to learn that there are no programs designed specifically for 2e kids, moreover the Department of Education does not have “clean data” showing how many 2e’s there are in the system: “Gifted and Talented is not tracked by disability yet but the number is extremely low,” said Katzman.

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Thursday, 19 January 2012 11:32

Poll: Who's responsible for college prep?

After decades of focusing on Regents exams and graduation rates, in 2011 for the first time the Education Department evaluated each high school on "college readiness" - that is, how many of its graduates were actually prepared to do college work. The score on each school's Progress Report didn't carry any weight this year but the numbers are depressing: fewer than half of the 2011 public high school graduates reported that they planned to enter college in the fall. And only one in four 2011 grads were deemed "college ready" — not in need of remedial college courses after four years of high school. The numbers are even lower for black and Latino students.

The City Council is pressing DOE officials to explain what they are doing to improve college-readiness. In turn, the DOE will hold school's accountable: high schools will be docked points for poor college readiness scores on the 2012 Progress Reports.

High schools already struggle to meet other accountability requirements. Some schools, like It Takes A Village Academy in East Flatbush, have a high Regents pass rate (90% graduate in 4 years) and an abysmal college readiness rate (9%).

Should high schools take more initiative to guide students through test prep, college vists and the application process? Whose responsibility is it to prepare kids for college? Take our poll and share your ideas!

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