My sophomore came home from school the other day and declared that he was sick and tired of working on the same practice paragraphs over and over for the English Regents exam. He was bored of test prep and annoyed by constant conversation about test scores and student performance. And he decided to voice his concerns aloud, in class.
The ability to question authority may be admirable, but it’s not necessarily welcomed by teachers who may be judged, compensated and evaluated on how well their students score on standardized tests. Teachers at his school are even offering extra credit for sitting through two-hour practice sessions for the English Regents, which I gather is not students’ first choice of activity on these stunningly beautiful June afternoons.
I strongly urged him to get the extra credit, but not because I defend this new testing culture. Discussing some of the great books and plays he’s been reading in high school is a lot more fun. If I have time, I’ve enjoyed reading, or re-reading in many cases, some of the texts his class is discussing from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to Richard Wright’s Native Son, as well as one of my all-time favorites, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Apparently those in-class conversations have ceased, replaced by non-stop discussions of the "critical lens” essay portion of the exam – not exactly dinner-table conversation. Nonetheless, I decided to poke around and find out more about what these essays ask students to do. Here’s what I learned.
Students are given a quotation to read and are then asked to interpret it. They write an essay using two works they’ve studied to show how the work is true or untrue, making mention of literary elements like irony, symbolism or foreshadowing, for example. They must avoid plot summary, establish criteria for analysis, organize their ideas clearly, specify details (title, author) and follow the conventions of standard written English.
I have no problem with asking students to master these tasks. It all seems quite reasonable. However, like my son, I am questioning a testing culture that has “sapped so much of the joy from the classroom and pushed so many teachers to replace creative, imaginative lessons with timid and defensive ones,” according to my sage colleague, Insideschools.org founder Clara Hemphill.
Her comments and some other fascinating ones around testing – including much passionate defense of it can be found in an excellent Room For Debate conversation that appeared in the New York Times last week. The debate comes at a time when the city is developing new “performance tasks” that administrators believe will help students learn—and help teachers judge what students have learned.
Kevin Carey of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington D.C, says “the city should be cautious in using initial test results for high-stakes personnel decisions,’’ but he calls the new approach “a welcome development for students who deserve to be taught by educators with a demonstrated ability to help children learn.”
Carey, however, does not have a 15-year-old son in a New York City public high school who is bored to rebellion by test prep, or a middle-schooler so anxious about the fact that his teachers may be judged on his results that he can’t sleep the night before standardized tests.
There is no shortage of opinion about test prep, and no consensus either. Marcus Winter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, believes the tests “provide important information about teacher quality that we should use to improve our terribly flawed system for evaluating teachers.”
On the other side, PBS News Hour correspondent and Learning Matters president John Merrow deeply probes assumptions about standardized tests in a column reproduced on the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” blog.
“We don’t respect students’ intelligence; hence we focus on the lowest common denominator in skills,’’ writes Merrow, author of The Influence of Teachers: Reflections on Teaching and Leadership. “We don’t respect teachers, which is why we turn to standardized testing as the be-all and end-all of evaluation.”
Insideschools.org would like to hear from parents on how their children are faring in this new test culture. Any other rebels at home? Are there parents who believe more tests and an increased focus on testing will actually improve teaching and learning? We welcome your thoughts.
I don’t want to overhear another conversation about who got into certain schools and who didn’t. I don’t want to listen to teenagers and parents comparing lateness records, grades, and test scores, or discussing why one talented artist or singer got overlooked
I don’t want to know about who cried all weekend after being turned down by a specialized high school. No 13-year-old should have to.
I'm not alone in this thinking.
“The process is inequitable, illogical, unfair, unduly harsh and, really, just silly,’’ one parent noted this week on Insideschools.
On paper it seems like there are more than enough choices. Pick up the weighty high school directory or check it out online and you’ll see hundreds of options.
A clear downside to school choice, though, is the stiff competition for many of the best and most well known schools, which leads to a large number of students who end up disappointed and sad when they don’t get in. That’s how many are feeling this week after being notified of specialized high school decisions, where the odds are against admission.
And come March 31, when all decisions are revealed, many kids may not get a match to any high school. The city can’t possibly open enough quality high schools fast enough to meet demand.
So what can we do to encourage change, beyond pushing for more schools that replicate successful models? A few thoughts:
- Chancellor Cathie Black could host a series of open meetings and hearings to solicit views about how the high school admissions system should be changed.
- Every middle school in the city could offer free test prep for the specialized exam high schools. Test prep is not equal, but equal access to it could help level the playing field.
- All middle schools could offer portfolio and audition preparation to help students trying out for the talent schools. For any talent, the more nurturing and honing, and the more help and opportunities kids can get to perfect their skills in after school art, music, drama and dance programs, the better.
- The system of ranking and matching high schools needs an overhaul, with clear, concise criteria for admission laid out. Some of the most coveted schools acknowledge a geographic preference or test score ranges, while others ask for portfolios and interviews. Yet students regularly seem to be admitted who don’t meet the criteria. And we’ve known dozens and dozens of kids who easily met multiple requirements, and still got shut out of their first, second and even third choices.
“I’m convinced they just end up picking names out of a hat,’’ my eighth-grade son said. Since schools are under no obligation to describe or explain how they make decisions, he could be right.
There were many thoughtful responses to my December post on whether Chancellor Black should revamp high school admissions, including a great deal of appreciation for maintaining a system of choice. “Let’s just have more and better choices,’’ was a typical refrain. Others called for a system of strong neighborhood high schools.
Understanding that none of this will happen instantly, let’s focus on coming up with some concrete suggestions for making high school choice more manageable for kids, parents, and educators.
Insideschools.org welcomes specific ideas.
There’s a middle school scene my youngest child will never forget. On the day when eighth-graders received decisions about who got into the city’s nine specialized high schools, the sounds of sobbing reverberated through the hallways. While plenty of students got good news, others experienced the sting of disappointment in the company of supportive friends and school officials.
He was devastated and taken aback by the tears. The idea of public rejection and of having to go through a search process all over again seemed particularly painful to a sensitive sixth-grader, who had just finished touring and ranking middle schools and was trying to settle in.
Two years later, it’s his turn. Offer letters came out today, and some schools called all students awaiting word into a guidance office, and allowed them to open up the envelopes together. Roughly 6,000 eighth-graders got offers to these elite schools.
Students at my son’s middle school will not get their results today, because school officials decided to no longer break the news to them personally. In a letter home, the school noted how stressful this time can be for students.
“Some will receive splendid news, and others will be very disappointed with their results,’’ the letter noted. “It's very important for parents to open the letters with their children and also to have a conversation with them about the next steps.’’
The letter also offered some comfort: “If your child receives disappointing news, remind them that this does not mean they haven’t been matched to a school at all, it just means that they will find out about their match in March. It always works out in some shape or form, and it is important to remind our children of this. If we remain calm and optimistic, so will our kids.”
I thought that was tremendous advice, even though some parents pushed hard for an immediate answer. Because different schools have different ways of giving the news out, some kids found out today. Others may get letters on Saturday or not until next week. The news, meanwhile, will trickle out via Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks.
Insideschools.org is interested to hear from parents – and students – on the best way to get – and handle the news. How is it going in your child’s middle school? Is it better for kids to open the letters together or wait and get it at home?
I keep getting caught up and confused by high school exam schedules. Of course, I knew about final exams that took place in most New York City public high schools last week. And I vaguely recall seeing something about a reduced schedule during Regents week, which runs through Jan. 28.
But I didn’t realize that would mean my son would have only one day of school this week!
If I had been savvy enough to study the schedule in advance, I might have done something like my far-more in-the-know friends have done – ship the kid off to say, a grandparent, or line up a week of paying work or community service.
I checked in with my suburban siblings -- who assured me their teenagers are also off.
Friends in some city high schools, though, said their kids are still in class. For the statewide scoop, I went straight to Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Education.
Schools “are expected are expected to continue regular instruction during the January and June Regents Examination periods to the fullest extent possible,’’ Burman told me.
Classes may be canceled only when the number of students taking examinations is so large that normal instruction cannot be carried on effectively, he said. I could not get firm numbers on just how many students are taking the Regents exams, but the pool has grown larger with requirements that high school students pass five of them to graduate.
Apparently, the mid-year exams create something of a scheduling nightmare for schools. In small schools, teachers have to find rooms where they can teach during Regents week. The exams also come at a time when teachers are grading finals and working on programming students' schedules for the second semester.
Schools don’t have to take attendance on Regents exam days, Marge Feinberg of the New York City Department of Education told me. And if grades 7-12 are housed in the same building, the middle school students may also get the time off if their class schedules are disrupted by the Regents exams.
All of this is likely making a whole lot of teenagers happy, even if working parents are somewhat disgruntled. My son clearly articulated what he wants to do with this week: Chill.
Chilling generally involves multiple sleepovers and band practices, and it can turn the average city apartment into a landfill. I’m already anticipating coming home to cartons of pizza and cookies and card games strewn about. I also won’t be home to complain about screen abuse and to witness what could be endless, mind-numbing hours of video games.
The unscheduled free time might even convert me to the more stringent, no sleepover, no television and no video game parenting ethos of Amy Chau, author of the highly publicized and best selling “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”
I’m sure Chau would have figured out a way to handle an unanticipated week off of school: (Extra credit projects? More piano lessons? Better birthday cards? Prepare for graduate school?)
Chilling, on the other hand, does nothing to improve grades. It earns no money and no community service credit. And chilling adds nothing to the general ambiance of a family household, especially when a resentful younger child still has to go to school.
I reluctantly acknowledge the value of so-called “down time,” even if I don’t get any of it myself. I’m not completely against giving over-scheduled kids a little time off in the middle of January when many of us would much rather stay in bed.
I just can’t help wondering why an entire high school must come to a halt because of exams that may involve a small percentage of students. Must every teacher be occupied with these mid-year exams so that all classes are canceled? Isn’t there some way high schools could continue to be open and maybe offer tutoring clinics in tough subjects or some SAT prep?
What about clubs or activities, a Red Cross babysitting course, CPR or some skill that would help students find a job? How about a resume writing workshop or a book group discussion? What about sports and games?
Insideschools.org would like to know if other parents have been caught off guard by Regents week. Are you satisfied that you had enough notice? Any coping tips?
After too much nagging and way too much frustration, I finally realized the best way to help my high-schooler through finals this week: Leave him alone.
It’s a lot easier to ignore the pile of books, index cards and dog-earned notebooks that will cover my dining room table all week from the pub around the block. And it’s not like I’m going to be following him around in college, saying things like: “How did that exam go?”
At this point, anything I say will only make it worse, especially if it’s something like: “Why did you wait until the last minute to turn in that paper….memorize the periodic table….understand the origins of the Russian Revolution?”
I’ve tried limiting Facebook and texting during exams, only to be told that it’s all part of studying. He's also made it clear that this is no time for lectures about the need to get it together, get good grades, or get into a good college.
Most of the time, I wish grades and tests didn’t matter that much, and we could have fun watching period films and talking about history as a family, or discussing characters in both fiction and history that we find intriguing.
I also wish more New York City High Schools handed out detailed study guides and put together schedules that allowed students full days to prepare for each final, instead of stacking them one on top of another.
I know some schools do a better job at this than others, and I also know that some students are better at managing study and organizational skills. And some middle schools do a better job than others at teaching specific strategies and skills for handling multiple exams on the same day.
My son may have slept through such sessions. Anyway, it’s a bit too late for him to morph into the student I want him to be -- the one so prepared the night before finals that he’s thoroughly relaxed, watching mindless television or reading a magazine.
You know the type – the student who has memorized all the key points in textbook passages and highlighted the most important information in a neat, thoroughly organized, colored coded notebook.
That’s the student I always wished I could be, instead of stumbling through finals in both high school in college with too little sleep and too much caffeine. It’s too late for me now as well.
Insideschools.org. however, would like to hear more from parents, students and educators on how best to prepare students for finals and help students juggle multiple exams and demands.
Any schools doing a particularly good job getting students prepared? Any parents have tips on how to help students through this stressful time?
The interviews, tryouts, and discussions about which high schools to rank in what order are all over in our household, so I’ve been wondering lately why my 13-year-old continues to nervously tug on his hair and why his friends avoid all conversations about high school.
I blame post traumatic stress, an outgrowth of the public high school admissions process in New York City. It’s one of the more taxing aspects of life here for parents, and clearly takes its toll on kids.
“There’s nothing we can do until February,” I said, reminding him that we won’t get any answers until February 11 when he finds out if he gets into one of the nine specialized high schools. “Why not enjoy the rest of eighth-grade?”
“I just hate this,’’ he blurted out. “Everybody’s still stressed out about it. Kids, teachers, guidance counselors, all the people who have to do all that interviewing. Why don’t they change it? Or have more good high schools that everybody can go to?”
It’s a good question. Now is as good a time as any to think about whether the high school “match’’ system created by Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Elizabeth Sciabarra, who founded the Office of Student Enrollment and recently stepped down, should survive. New Schools Chancellor Cathie Black sent her own children to private boarding school so she has no idea about what it’s like to navigate admissions here and try to find the best fit for your child.
Parents and students, what do you think? Should she revamp the system?
For the record, I’m grateful for the choices offered in New York City’s 1,600 public schools, although most parents who go through high school admissions wish the best weren’t so difficult to get into. For example Townsend Harris in Queens got nearly 3,000 first-choice applicants for just 300 spots last year.
We’ve been pleasantly surprised at the variety of offerings we’ve seen, from the intense specialized high schools to highly popular selective schools. There are some really interesting options, like the New York Harbor School, which just moved to Governor’s Island.
When it came to selecting and ranking 12 of them, though, we had to stop at seven -- even though there are more than 400 high schools in the city. Supply still does not meet demand.
Since we started looking at high schools, I’ve been most focused on what it does for parents, noting that it becomes practically a full time job. It's hard on middle school teachers because visiting high schools and taking tours means students are missing hours and hours of class. Guidance counselors have the time-consuming task of helping kids and parents think about and rank choices.
Klein says New York City has “the nation’s premier high choice system," and there are plenty of people who believe Sciabarra improved the way students and schools were matched in the past. But one troubling fact remains year after year – between 6,000 and 8,000 students annually are not matched to a school at all.
I find that totally unacceptable. Insideschools.org is inviting anyone with an opinion to tell Chancellor Cathie Black what they think of the high school admissions process in New York City.
How might it be changed? Or should it remain as is?
“Are we late?’ my 13-year-old asked again and again, as we headed first to an interview and then an audition, all within a three hour time span at an ungodly hour on Sunday. We were not, but plenty of frantic parents and kids were, and just as many appeared to be lost on their way to some of New York City’s most selective high schools.
Weekend after weekend, the sought-after schools have opened their doors for interviews, essays, tests, and tryouts. Individual dreams and dramas are playing out in households from Staten Island to Queens as admissions season comes down to its final weeks.
From lost lyrics and forgotten lines and glasses to art portfolios mistakenly left in cabs, the potential for mishap is great when the stakes are so high. How many kids or parents looked at our calendars or our phones, wondering if we’d messed up an address, a day or a time slot?
How many kids grew flustered when asked to articulate the reasons why they wanted to go to a certain school? (I know mine did, even after repeatedly rehearsing the answer in the subway.)
And just how much pressure is fair to put on eighth-graders who have one shot to tout their academic abilities in an admissions exam or interview, or to show off their skills as a dancer, musician, artist, actress or singer?
On Sunday, we managed to be on time to the back-to-back interview and audition, and even remembered the crucial documents (copies of the seventh-grade report card and an audition ticket). We packed I-pods and cell phones, novels, and snacks.
The security guards, staff, and volunteers we encountered at every turn repeated a message that should resonate for anyone with a child about to enter high school: Parents get out. It’s not about you.
I’m sure this came as a relief to the many kids who made it to tryouts and interviews on their own. And what parent wants to sit outside for hours in the freezing cold, as many did recently at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, where the audition lines snaked around the block at 7 a.m. ?
Over at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art, parents were warned tryouts could take four hours or even longer. They were encouraged to leave or invited to hang out and wait in an upstairs cafeteria.
I heard more than one teenager tell their parents to get lost. I watched others, looking utterly spaced out and spent, calling parents to come and get them. One father showed up at his son’s urgent text message request, telling a guard that his son had been in the school since 8 a.m. and had asked for food.
Showing compassion, the guard allowed the lunch to be delivered. Still another parent showed up with forgotten dance shoes, while another said a daughter had lost her cell phone and asked the guard if someone could lend her one when the tryout was over. They did.
Unlike the popular television shows “America Idol,’’ or “Dancing with the Stars,’’ the tryouts don’t come with instant feedback or decisions from a jury providing pithy commentary. Most often, very few words are spoken after auditions, beyond the standard “thank you." In some cases, call-backs provide a second chance for another shot.
The answer to the “how did it go,’’ question won’t be known until February, when decisions are made for those who took the SSHAT exam for the specialized high schools or tried out for LaGuardia and were accepted. Decisions will come six weeks later for those who did not apply to one of the nine specialized high schools.
With choices ranked and auditions and interviews winding down, I’m hoping eighth graders can now get back to preparing for high school, when the workload will be much greater and the next competitive hurdles of school -- and life -- will surface. It’s time to change the conversation.
In the meantime, Insideschools.org invites you to swap tales of tryouts and interviews and tests. Were they well handled and organized? How did you and your child survive the pressure? Is the system fair? Any thoughts on how it might be done better?
During a much anticipated tour of a highly selective and extremely appealing high school last week, I fell sound asleep. It happened in a hot and crowded auditorium, somewhere between the guidance counselor talking about the roughly 5,000 applicants for 150 spots and the principal touting the wonderful clubs and activities. When I woke up, I glanced over at my 13-year-old. Sound asleep, although he vehemently denies it. We hastily got up and rushed to catch up with the part of the tour where everyone starts peering into classrooms.
In my case, I’m re-visiting some of the same schools my oldest child openly admits he slept through just two years ago. He wanted only one school and didn’t understand the need for a back-up plan or for examining alternatives, an extremely risky strategy in a city where the supply of excellent high schools does not come close to meeting the demand. He saw an opportunity for a nap and took it, a habit I hope isn’t repeating itself now that he’s actually in the school of his choice.
The youngest is a little more curious about what different high schools have to offer. Like thousands of other eighth-graders, though, he’s exhausted by the combination of juggling homework, sports and after school activities with the demands of high school admission.
Our sleepiness last week might have had something to do with timing of the late afternoon tour. The sky feels prematurely dark in mid-November, and kids have already spent at least six hours in classrooms. The teachers and administrators who are giving these tours are likely equally exhausted; they held three tours in a row on our most recent visit.
So my modest proposal is this: why not have students make a low-cost video of their high school and post it on the school’s website? Many college offer virtual campus tours these days, although I am not talking about anything really fancy, nor do I see the tours as a substitute for visiting a school and checking out the kids and teachers.
Virtual tours could provide an alternative for parents and kids who are overbooked. Why not offer one on all high school websites? The schools could turn it into a project for the existing students. They can film the principal, so he or she doesn’t have to make the same speech over and over about what makes a typical Midwood, Murrow or Millennium student and repeat what the admissions requirements are. They might include scenes from classrooms, clubs and sports and allow viewers to click on topics of interest. It’s possible that some schools are already doing this, but we haven’t found any yet.
Tours and open houses are fine for those with stamina and staying power but with applications due in just two weeks,we’d be happy to curl up in front of the computer and click our way through the rest of them.
Anyone else have ideas about how to streamline – or survive – New York City high school admissions?
College bound high school seniors through out the U.S. are struggling to put the finishing touches on college essays, those pesky assignments aimed at giving admissions officers a bit more personal information about an applicant -- and at the very least some insight into their writing.
Now eighth graders attempting to get into some of the city's most competitive New York City high schools are doing the same. They may be coming home straight from school to work on their high school essays, and trading possible topics and ideas. Or, perhaps, their parents wish they were because the stakes are so high.
The ever-popular Beacon, where the freshmen class will be less than 300, wants both a portfolio delivered in person to the Lincoln Center area school and a one-page, single-spaced typed paper “on ways that you have shown a special dedication to or a special talent for the arts, technology, community service, an academic subject, or sports.”
At downtown Manhattan's Millenium High School, it is optional to submit a one page personal essay (250-500 words, single or double spaced): Tell us about a challenging problem and how you solved it. The school notes on its website that it had over 4,500 applicants last year for just over 150 seats.
In the face of all this competition, I’m not surprised that just before the start of every tour, my 13-year-old turns to me and asks:
“Is there an essay? Or a test? Do I have to try out? Is there an interview? Is there a portfolio? What kinds of grades do they want?”
These kids get it – they already know from applying to middle schools that not everyone will get their first choice. And they can’t help overhearing snippets of conversation: For example, word is out that Townsend Harris High School in Queens had nearly 3,000 students who ranked it first, and had spots for only 10 percent of them, according to the New York Daily News.
Townsend Harris does not ask for essays, but selects students whose overall average is 90 percent or higher; it’s also one of the few schools that lists the specific seventh-grade test scores required to be considered for admission.
There’s less than a month to go before students rank and list their final choices. Tours are continuing but we’ve come to the point where everyone seems a bit weary of them. I heard a few parents complain on a tour last week that all the schools are starting to look and sound alike.
Insideschools would like to hear from teachers, principals, parent coordinators and others about the essays they are reading. Are they all starting to sound alike yet? Any tips on what makes an essay from a 13-year-old truly stand out? Should more schools ask for them to help identify writing problems early on and target instruction accordingly?
And, how are students -- and parents -- handling the challenge of making sure that essays get written and portfolios are put together?
It’s hard to overlook the amenities – or the lack of them – when searching for a New York City Public high school. Who wouldn’t be wowed by Stuyvesant’s swimming pool, Frank Sinatra’s rooftop garden or The Harbor School’s fish tanks and stunning campus? At the same time, some of the best and most coveted high schools in the city can have drab, crowded classrooms in serious need of renovation.
And anyone who is mixing private school tours with public can’t possibly help being wowed by the facilities – (if they aren’t overwhelmed by price tags approaching $36,000 annually).
It’s not fair to compare the two, but a friend who had just come back from the verdant campus of Fieldston with its mini-college campus feel in Riverdale toured the highly rated NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies with her son the next day and found the crowded classrooms depressing, even though the teaching seemed inspiring.
Lots of the city’s large high schools were built around the same time and have a similar look and feel – scuffed linoleum and long, seemingly endless corridors, although there are some true architectural gems. You won’t see many fields or tennis courts in city high schools, and a swimming pool really stands out.
What happens in the classrooms, though, matter most, right? And so far, every popular school we’ve visited has classrooms packed to capacity and beyond. In some cases, the students sit so close they are actually touching.
I don’t even want to think about what the classrooms smell like after gym class.
Newly built schools – especially those with lots of windows and views of the River, like Millenium, are also impressive to young minds. Many other schools share space, so it’s important on tours to distinguish what is going on in each distinct school, with its own distinct philosophy and culture.
During our first foray into high school tours two years ago, I had to keep reminding my 13-year-old that even though he was the one who had to spend four years in a building, looks didn’t matter as much as say, the quality of teaching, college placement, graduation rates, and the range of interesting activities.
He kept thinking about the impressive technology we saw in some buildings, along with river views, comfortable student lounges, and fitness facilities. All are great, but they don’t make an education.
Insideschools.org would like to hear more about the impressions of parents and kids after visiting different high schools. What has been impressive, and what has been dismaying?
How do you convince young teenagers not to judge a book by its cover? Ultimately, do looks matter?