Energy and optimism burst out of the 2011 video [view below] by students at Young Women's Leadership School in Brooklyn. Dancing and singing to the tune of Taio Cruz's "Dynamite," they proclaim, "Test prep goes on and on and on....I am brilliant. I have confidence. Gonna ace these tests."
This month, many city students will see such optimism ebb when they learn how they scored on the state's standardized reading and math tests. At Brooklyn's Young Women's Leadership, for example, only 24 percent scored well enough to be viewed as "passing" the English test, with less than 15 percent passing the math exam. In the first tests tied to the new Common Core standards, other schools, particularly in poorer parts of the five boroughs or with high percentages of black and Latino students, had similar results.
Individual student scores will become available on ARIS the week of Aug. 26, the Department of Education says. During that week, the department plans to have staff in selected libraries to explain the new tests and help parents access their child's scores.
Many families will get bad news. Some will see their child tumble a level or two; others will find their child, considered solidly proficient for the last few years, now falling to a Level 1.
Recognizing this could lead to difficult conversations in many homes, the Department of Education advises parents to convince their children of the importance of the Common Core and to downplay the test's importance. ("The tests are only one piece of what you know and are able to do.")
The DOE's "script" for parents, though, flies in the face of what many city children have experienced throughout their school careers. Tests count, students are told in many ways, and they should work hard to prepare for them.
Students prepare for tests not only during the school day, particularly in the spring, but in what previously would have been spare time -- before school, after school and on Saturdays. In a 2012 Insideschools article, Meredith Kolodner described schools that ran practice test sessions during spring break. In one, students had already spent the month of March taking practice tests every morning and then reviewing them in the afternoon.
PS 262 in Bedford-Stuyvesant starts test prep in the fall, with students who score poorly arriving before the school day for extra instruction. This may have helped account for the school's relatively high scores -- 57 percent proficient in English and 62 percent in math -- in 2012 but it did not keep the scores from plummeting this year -- to 22 percent "passing" the English and 16 percent the math.
The need to prepare for the test pervades many city schools as test time approaches. Rocco P. Hill, a former public school teacher now working in a private school, wrote of the effect the looming tests had on his former school. After the test prep books arrive in March, Hill writes, "All classrooms are on lockdown. The days become much more rigid. I remember one exhausted third-grade boy weeks into the test-prep period pleading aloud to anyone who would listen, 'Can we actually learn something real now?'"
In some buildings, the test prep begins long before the arrival of the books. After a poor showing in 2011,PS 80 in Rochedale Village, offered tutoring and a Saturday academy and changed its curriculum. In 2012, the school showed a healthy increase in its test results but this year's test wiped out those advances and then some, with fewer than 20 percent of students scoring proficient on both the ELA and math tests.
Many schools that posted the best results are those with selective admissions. At others, such as the Success Academy charter schools, the focus on test prep, combined with other factors, seems to have helped keep scores high. But some experts urge parents and students not to take the results too seriously. Parents on the District 30 Community Education Council are issuing a statement at their annual meeting on Aug. 15, calling the tests "poorly designed" and suggesting that parents explain to their children "that these tests are not a valid measure of their skills, intelligence, or knowledge."
Anna Allanbrook, longtime principal of the Brooklyn New School in Carroll Gardens,cautioned parents in Aprilthat the tests were too difficult. In 2012, 94 percent of her school's 4th graders were deemed proficient in math. This year among the same group of children, then 5th graders, only 25.6 percent were proficient. "Neither the 94 percent or the 25 percent reflects reality," Allanbrook told The New York Times this week, adding, "What could parents possibly learn about their child's abilities from such crazy results?"
Alison Morea, a Brooklyn parent of an 8th grader at Cunningham, said in an email that some students, particularly competitive ones, will be affected by the drop in their scores, But after seeing four children go through this, Morea wrote, "Mostly I have been able to put it in perspective and realize that these are measuring answers marked 'correct' on a test.
There is little research on how tests scores affect student morale and motivation. All many students will know is that they worked hard to prepare and that work did not pay off in passing scores. As an upstate teacher, Craig Overbeck, wrote, "Whatever spin one wants to put on it, the tests say that I, or the kids, or the system, have somehow failed."