While many boys his age were playing video games or sports, a 14-year-old from Bangladesh spent every Saturday afternoon since last summer studying math and English at Khan’s Tutorial, a test preparation center in Jamaica, Queens.

Joydeep Baidya, an 8th grader in Intermediate School 238 in Jamaica, said he had no regrets, when he found out in late March that he scored 592 out of a possible 800 on the New York City Specialized High School Admissions Test, high enough to gain admission into Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School, one of the city’s top public high schools.


“For the period leading to the test, the priority was not fun,” said Baidya, who moved to New York just three years ago. “It was to pass the test.”

Baidya is one of the 161 students at Khan’s Tutorial this year who secured a spot in the much-coveted specialized high schools in New York City. The majority of the 200 students who registered at Khan to prep for this year’s test were born in Bangladesh or are children of Bangladeshi parents. Just like their Chinese and Korean counterparts, Bangladeshi families put great emphasis on education and testing is deeply rooted in their culture. The students are quietly becoming sought after by test prep centers in Queens and beyond.

According to Ivan Khan, Chief Operating Officer of Khan’s Tutorial, the test prep center has been sending more than 100 students to the specialized high school every year since 2005. About 30,000 8th and 9th graders take the test every October, and roughly 5,400 are offered admission into one of the eight elite schools, including Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School. Khan said the enrollment in his center has gone up 20 percent this year and he had opened two new branches just within last two years.

In recent years, Asians have made up the majority in the city’s specialized high schools. Stuyvesant’s 3,300 students in grades 9 to 12 are 72 percent Asian, 24 percent white, 2.4 percent Hispanic and 1.2 percent black. Although the majority of the Asian students are either Chinese or Korean, the Bangladeshis are making impressive progress.

“When I went to Bronx Science, there were maybe six or seven Bangladeshi students per grade,” said Khan, class of 1999. According to one of his former students, Ishraq Chowdhury, class of 2012 at Bronx Science, about 13 to 15 percent of the school’s total population of about 3,000 students are of Bangladeshi descent. The school did not return requests to confirm the numbers.

One obvious reason is the rapid growth of immigrants from Bangladesh. According to census statistics, the number of Bangladeshi immigrants has grown more than10 times in the last two decades, from about 5,000 in 1990 to close to 60,000 in 2010. New York City is their number one destination.

Nazli Kibria, a professor of sociology at Boston University who studies the Bangladeshi diaspora in the U.S., said most Bangladeshi immigrants left their country to improve ther economic and educational opportunities.

“It is a driving force,” said Kibria. “The emphasis on education gives meaning to their immigration to this country.”

The London-born Khan spent a year and a half of his youth in Bangladesh. He said performing well in school is a source of pride and joy for Bangladeshi families.

And the emphasis on education cuts across class lines. According to Khan, many parents who send their children to his test prep center are blue-collar workers, ranging from cab drivers and restaurant workers to shopkeepers.

“But the drive to help their children get into one of the most competitive schools is just as strong as middle-class parents,” said Khan.

Among the Bangladeshi-run test prep centers, Khan’s Tutorial is the largest and most established. Founded in Jackson Heights in 1994 by Khan’s father, a former public school math teacher and assistant principal, it now operates in six locations in New York City and one in Long Island. The newest location in Astoria opened last year. It has attracted many non-Bangladeshi students, including Eastern Europeans and Middle Easterners. In addition to the program for specialized high schools, Khan’s also offers prep programs for the SAT, Regents Exams, Advanced Placement courses, and summer programs for kindergartners through sixth graders.

“We advertise through the Bangladeshi satellite television that goes out to the rest of the country,” said Khan, referring to Bengali-language satellite channels made available through the Dish Network in the U.S. “Now we even get requests from California. But we want to maintain the quality so we have no plans to expand outside of New York.”

On a recent Sunday afternoon, dozens of students were getting ready for the upcoming Regents Exam in Khan’s modest four-room center located above a Bangladeshi deli and Guyanese restaurant on Hillside Avenue in a commercial section of Jamaica. Many of the 17 seventh graders in Roman Patwary’s math class had their hands up, eager to solve an algebra problem on the blackboard. In the room next door, students of various ages worked with tutors in small groups on English and math exercises. Many instructors and tutors in the prep center are former Khan’s students who went to specialized high schools themselves.

Instructors say their center prepares students “for a future of standardized tests.” Niloy Iqbal, a premed student at New York University who has been teaching at Khan’s since 2009, ticked off all the exams students need to enter professional schools in medicine, law and pharmacology.

Meanwhile, Iqbal said the content for the specialized high school test does not go beyond what students learn in school.

“The material is taught in school,” said Iqbal, who attended Khan’s and got into Stuyvesant. “It’s just the way they pose the questions. It’s forcing the students to think critically.”

Khan’s charges a flexible rate of $75 per week for a four-hour session. Students received a reduced rate if they sign up for long-term classes. The center offers a $3,500 package of 52 sessions and 20 workshops that comes with a guarantee of admission into a specialized high school. Khan said about 90 percent of the 80 students who signed up for the package were accepted into one of the eight specialized high schools. Those who are not accepted receive a one-month compensation course to prepare for next year. Meanwhile, Khan’s also offers help for them to get into other selective public schools such as Bard College High School Early College or Midwood High School.

Khan’s Tutorial has begun to advertise in more low-income communities which historically have a low number of students in specialized high schools. In March, Khan’s launched a 12-week SAT prep program in partnership with the Bedford Central Presbyterian Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn at about half price.

When asked about options for students whose families cannot afford even the discounted rate, Khan said there is a free city-run program for eligible students. New York Specialized High School Institute, a 22-month test prep program, is available for 6th and 7th graders who receive free lunch, have good grades and attendance records. They also need to have at least average on state math and English exams.

For the ambitious Baidya, getting into Stuyvesant is just the beginning of his academic journey.

“I want to be an architect,” Baidya said, adding that his number one college choice is Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He said he plans to take advantage of Stuyvesant’s participation in the Youth in Engineering and Science (YES) Summer Research Program and MIT Summer Research Science Institute.

But his test prep days at Khan’s aren’t likely to end anytime soon. “I heard the SAT is difficult,” said Baidya. “I will probably be back for it.”

Larry Tung, Class of 2012, was a student in LynNell Hancock's Covering Education seminar at Columbia Journalism School. You can read more of the class's stories here.

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The refrain “I hate tests,” is nothing new in my household, but it’s usually met with an unsympathetic “that’s life – it’s a necessary evil” shrug.

After last week’s SAT exam debacle that invalidated scores for 199 juniors from some 50 schools who took the May 5 SAT exam at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights -- including my 16-year-old -- I’m having a hard time controlling my own rage.

What really happened that caused the Educational Testing Service to throw out the results of all the exams? We’ve been given little information, while witnessing a parade of finger pointing and of adults protecting adults. There is no evidence -- at least that we’ve heard -- of a cheating scandal.

And yet, there has been very little regard for the overstressed juniors who have had their scores invalidated and their test re-scheduled twice, with scant notice and virtually no explanation.

Of course, I want to know what happened and why, but it’s not individuals I want to signal out for blame.

Really, it’s a systemic culture of testing and their use that must be reconsidered.

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Not only are the state tests confusing for the kids. Now teachers say they can't figure out how to score them.

Long-time principals and teachers say they have never witnessed the level of confusion that has broken out in scoring sessions for the state math and English tests this year. Principals have received several emails with corrections to the scoring guide created by the testing company Pearson. More than 5,000 city teachers have been pulled out of their classes to grade the exams, a job which is scheduled to wrap up Wednesday.

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Monday, 14 May 2012 12:17

Must I send my son to summer school?

Dear Judy,

My son’s teacher said he might have to go to summer school so he won’t be left back. Does he have to go to summer school? I want to send him to camp.

Annoyed parent.

Dear Annoyed,

Good news: No one is going to force you to send your son to summer school – attendance used to be required, but now is voluntary. However, they can keep him back from the next grade if his school work does not warrant promotion. It is all covered in Chancellor’s Regulation A-501. More good news, summer school sessions run until August 8th at the latest. So he can go to the last three weeks of camp – most camps have flexible schedules with campers signing on for a few weeks rather than a whole summer.

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A pilot for the city's new test prep program to help low-income students qualify for the elite specialized high schools has shown improved results.

About 30 percent of the students – from predominately black and Caribbean schools - who began the pilot DREAM, Specialized High School Institute as 6th graders got offers to a specialized school after taking the test in 2011. The rate of acceptances for black and Latino students in the previous program was about 20%.

The Department of Education, politicians and advocates have long been disturbed by the low number of black and Hispanic students enrolled at the city’s elite specialized high schools. Over the years they have looked at ways to increase the numbers without changing the exam that determines admission at one of the eight schools.

In the DREAM pilot, instruction focused more on test-taking skills, critical thinking and time-saving strategies than previous courses, according to the DOE. There was also "robust teacher professional development and coaching" and a reporting system that allowed teachers to tailor instruction to individual students, concentrating on areas of weaknesses. In other changes designed to improve the retention rate, more test prep sites have been set up. Now the 18 programs are district-based, making it easier for students to attend. Participants are provided with MetroCards and free lunches.

This year, DREAM will also include more students than the previous program (SHSI), enrolling 2,600 6th and 7th graders – up from 932 6th graders last year. The program may be expanded even further in the future, beginning in 5th grade.

Still, the higher success rate for black and Hispanic test-takers didn't allow them to catch up with Asian and white SHSI participants. In 2011, 62 percent of Asians who took the now-defunct SHSI prep course received a specialized offer as did 39 percent of white students.

The SHSI program, started in 1995, was primarily aimed at increasing the number of black and Hispanic students at specialized high schools. Since 2009, admission has been determined by income level, not race. As a result, a significantly higher percentage of Asian students and far fewer Hispanics enrolled. In 2011, the percentage of Asian students jumped to 45 percent from 16 percent in 2009 while Hispanics dropped to 24 percent from 42 percent over the same period.

In the first year of DREAM, which began on May 5, 40 percent students are Asian, 26 percent are Hispanic, 21 percent are black and 12 percent are white, according to the DOE.

(City high school students overall are 17 percent Asian, 39 percent Hispanic, 30 percent black and 13 percent white.)

This year 6,232 6th and 7th graders qualified for 2,600 slots. (There are about 5,800 freshmen seats in the specialized schools that base admissions on the exam.) Eligible students must meet academic and income guidelines. Because there are more qualified students than spaces available, students were chosen randomly in district-based lotteries. Students who didn’t get in were placed on a waitlist.

The $1.2 million program is paid for by Title 1 federal money.

 

2012 offers to specialized high schools by ethnicity (below) show that blacks and Hispanics trail Asian and white students in gaining acceptance. The chart does not indicate which students were enrolled in the SHSI or pilot DREAM program.

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Wednesday, 09 May 2012 15:34

More tests, more boycotts

Fed up with multiple errors on state exams (including loudmouthed pineapples), some parents are planning to boycott "field tests" next week that will be used to design future exams. 

Students at more than 1,500 public and parochial schools in the city are among students at more than 4,000 schools statewide who will sit for the exams. The results will not be used to measure student achievement or evaluate schools, city officials said.

Organizers have launched a statewide campaign and are urging other parents to have their children abstain from the tests as well, providing sample letters and a fact sheet.

"Field test" questions were embedded in the math and reading exams students took last month, which was part of the reason the exams were longer.

Although this is not the first time stand-alone field tests have been administered and the exams will only take up a period or two for one day, some parents say they are in no mood to have their children "help" design future tests.

“I was very upset to learn that the DOE has mandated that our children take these field tests,” said Patricia Velotta, who has notified her son’s school that she doesn’t want her eighth grader taking the planned field test in June. “When I heard yesterday, after the relief of the ELA and math tests being over, that now they want to subject our kids to another week of field testing, I felt exasperated. Our children have had enough.”

The Pearson company's $32 million contract to create the new and improved exams has also rankled parents, who have seen school budgets slashed for several years in a row.

PS 321, PS 107 and PS 261, all in brownstone Brooklyn, are test sites and home to parents who have been vociferously opposed to the rising stakes of standardized exams. But the exams will be given in all corners of the city. Third graders at the elite Manhattan school Anderson will be quizzed on math. Sixth and seventh graders at JHS 125 in the Soundview section of the Bronx will take the reading field test. At PS 207 in Howard Beach, 4th graders will sit for the science exam.

The science field tests will be given between May 14 and 18. Students will take the English and math field tests between June 5 and 8.

For more information about the boycott, parents can email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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New York State’s standardized math and English exams for 3rd, 4th and 5th grades are over, except for the scoring and the remaining four years of Pearson’s $32 million contract to provide tests. Here’s a sample question that should be on a state exam but never will be:

Read the following story. At the end, answer four questions.

It was a sunny Monday morning in the Enchanted Forest, and the animal children happily scurried, hopped and slithered to the clearing where Owl taught 4th grade. As usual, Bunny was first to arrive. “I’m so happy, Mr. Owl,” said Bunny. “Monday has music class, so it’s my favorite day.”

Owl looked at Bunny. “We’re not having music class, remember? Today is the annual Enchanted Forest state math test. Instead of singing songs and playing the recorder, you’re going to sit your little cotton tail at a desk for 90 minutes and answer some questions.”

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Wednesday, 25 April 2012 14:36

Math test question won't count either

A week after a quirky, nonsensical tale on the 8th grade ELA test stumped students and resulted in the New York State discounting questions from the exam, two faulty problems have surfaced on this week's state math tests.

In his weekly letter to principals, Chancellor Dennis Walcott advised schools of errors in the 4th and 8th grade math books. One question has no correct answer, the other has two correct answers.

New York State Education Department chalked one faulty answer up to "a typo" and issued the following instructions for teachers who are proctoring the exams on Wednesday and Thursday:

  • April 25: Grade 8 Book 1, Form C only – question 13 has no correct answer. Students may mark any response; the question will not be scored.
  • April 26: Grade 4, Book 2, all Forms (A, B, C, and D) – question 58 has two correct answers. Credit will be given for either correct answer.
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Anne Stone is Associate Professor of Music at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Jeff Nichols is Associate Professor of Music at Queens College and the Graduate Center. They live in Manhattan with their sons Aaron and Gabriel. As a result of their 3rd-grader's experiences with a test-driven curriculum, they joined with other parents and teachers in Change the Stakes, a committee of the Grassroots Education Movement working on issues related to high-stakes testing in the public schools. They have published two pieces for SchoolBook: "Dear Governor: Lobby to Save a Love of Reading" and "A Lesson on Teaching to the Test from E.B.White". 

When people ask us why we are boycotting the standardized tests this spring, we hardly know where to begin. We find it unconscionable that our son's test results can be used to determine whether his teachers keep their jobs, whether his school stays open, and whether he goes on to the next grade. But the "high-stakes" nature of the tests is just the tip of the pineapple.

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Friday, 20 April 2012 15:17

Too many top-scoring tykes for G&T

A whopping 1,603 incoming kindergartners scored in the 99th percentile on this year's gifted and talented assessments. Out of 14,239 test-takers, 11 percent scored in the top one percent. You'd think this was Lake Wobegon!

The tests are supposedly designed so that one out of every hundred test-takers nationwide scores in the the 99th percentile. So either New Yorkers are 11-times smarter than people elsewhere (or only smart kids are taking the tests) or there is something wrong with the tests.

For the last two years, just over 1,000 kindergartners scored in the 99th percentile. Scoring between the 97th-99th percentile on the G&T assessments means a child is eligible for one of five citywide programs. But there are fewer than 400 seats for incoming kindergartners. And qualifying siblings of current students get first dibs at those seats. At The Anderson School, 16 of the 50 kindergarten seats will go to siblings. At NEST+M, siblings will get about 15 of the 100 seats; at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, there are 12 qualifying siblings and four at STEM in Queens.

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