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.
Third through 8th graders take the high-stakes math and reading exams this month, and results help determine where kids go to middle and high school, which teachers get to keep their jobs and what schools the Education Department eyes for closure.
Some parents believe that the city’s aggressive approach to closing schools and the public nature of teacher test-based ratings have caused many schools to increase test prep to the detriment of more in-depth learning. The exams are also longer and are said to be more difficult this year.
At PS 230 in Kensington, where 78% of the kids qualify for free lunch and one-third are English language learners, Kaplan test prep materials were used in every 3rd, 4th and 5th grade classroom this year, parents and teachers say. For math lessons, test prep material from the Rally company was used. “My daughter’s never ever complained about school,” said Heather Cristol, whose daughter is in 5th grade at the school, “but she’s just so bored. It’s just making me sick. I want her out of this system.”
PS 9 in Prospect Heights, where 87% of the students qualify for free lunch, is also trying Kaplan this year for its Saturday test prep academy after getting slapped with a C on its report card.
This year even schools with low poverty rates, which traditionally have been able to score well without handing over full days to test prep, are joining the game. At PS 154 in Windsor Terrace, which has high scores and low rates of poverty and English language learners, 3rd graders must attend an 8-week Saturday test prep program. In mid-March, their homework switched from class-based assignments to test prep, parents said.
At PS 261 known for its progressive teaching philosophy, the PTA for the first time approved funding for a Saturday test prep program. The Boerum Hill school also found itself on the state’s in-need-of-improvement list this year.
“I think we should be in a system that demands less testing,” said Lisa Cowan who has a 2nd and 5th grader at the school, “but I understand why the school is doing what they are doing.”
Education Department officials admit that the state exams “leave a lot to be desired.” At a panel in March, deputy chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky said the exams “leave out skills like critical thinking and problem solving; the ability to read a text deeply and craft an argument.” But he also argued that “they do measure some important things,” and promised that they would get better.
Some schools believe they can post scores high enough to avoid sanctions without too much time dedicated to prep. Students at PS 503 in Sunset Park, where more than half the students are English language learners and 94% qualify for free lunch, are doing minimal test prep this year, even though the school was put on the state's in-need-of-improvement list this year. Principal Bernadette Fitzgerald said that her data shows that students who were reading at grade level were able to pass the English exam last year. “We feel that our students’ time is better spent actually reading than on test prep activities," she said.
Some test prep time at PS 503 involved helping students recognize when they are getting tired. Children will have 90 minutes to complete the longer exam this year. English language learners get extra time, meaning some of children will sit for more than two hours. "They need to be able to realize if they need to stop for a minute and stretch," said Fitzgerald. "It is a very long time to ask a child to sit still."