TOPICS > Education

Making the Grade Part V

May 21, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JOHN MERROW: It’s testing time at most public schools around the country. In New York and many other states, these are high stakes tests because students who perform poorly will have to go to summer school, and they could be held back. The stakes are high at this school, PS-25, in Brooklyn.

SARAH COSTELLO: Well, this school has come to a halt. It’s testing time.

JOHN MERROW: Sarah Costello is a first-year teacher at PS-25, one of New York City’s lowest performing, highest needs schools. Last year only 16% of the students at PS-25 met the standards in English. They did worse in math: Only 9% met the standards. Adding to the challenge is the fact that ten of the 56 teachers, including Sarah Costello, are first-year teachers called teaching fellows. They had one month of emergency summer training before they began teaching last fall.

RENEE CASON: Is that what most people did?

JOHN MERROW: Among these rookie teachers, Renee Cason, a former Americorps volunteer now teaching the fourth grade.

JACK NASTASI: Anyone know what that’s called, what type of triangle it is?

JOHN MERROW: Jack Nastasi, business major in college who decided at the last minute to become a teacher. He teaches sixth grade.

JANICE WRIGHT: Can you just please tell me what “elapsed” means?

JOHN MERROW: Janice Wright, who left the job as a page at NBC Television, and now teaches fifth grade.

TEACHER: How many miles can I travel in a day?

JOHN MERROW: And Sarah Costello, who also teaches fifth grade. She graduated from Wesleyan University with a degree in public policy. We spent several days in March and April at PS-25, watching the teaching fellows and their students and talking with them.

JOHN MERROW: How important are these tests?

SARAH COSTELLO: How important are these tests, guys?

STUDENTS: Very, very important.

JOHN MERROW: Reporter: Third, fifth, sixth and seventh graders took city tests in math and English in mid-April. The state math and English tests were given to fourth and eighth graders in early May.

JACK NASTASI: Guys, i don’t want to spend all day on this one question because we still have a ton more to go through.

JOHN MERROW: Beginning about a month before the first test, students, teachers, and administrators spent most of the time preparing for the challenge. Assistant principal Jim Flannery explained why.

JIM FLANNERY: I think it’s more on us to spend more time preparing the children for the types of tests that they’re going to face, and that’s a very, very difficult task, not only to prepare them for it, but to do it in a way that’s… I don’t even know if i’d use the word “non- threatening,” but in a very, very supportive manner.

JOHN MERROW: Michelle Goudy, another assistant principal, believes in the importance of testing.

MICHELLE GOUDY: In life you have to take tests, and this basically is preparing the children for the real world, society. You have to take a test. You had to take a test to be a teacher. You had to take a test to be a police officer or a city job. You need to prepare children on test information.

JOHN MERROW: At the beginning of April, Ms. Goudy directed the school’s Music, Art, Phys. Ed., and Spanish teachers to abandon their usual lessons and focus instead on material that was likely to be on the English and Math tests. On this April morning, Tanya Amaya’s eighth grade Spanish class was learning how to distinguish facts from opinions.

STUDENT: Interestingly enough, new evidence showed that life may have existed on Mars.

TANYA AMAYA: Is that a fact or opinion?

JOHN MERROW: Amaya, who’s in her second year of teaching, has her doubts about this strategy.

TANYA AMAYA: It’s a lot of work on us, okay? And not only we have to worry about teaching and preparing for our subject, on top of that we have to work on another subject, English or Math, to prepare those kids to pass the citywide test. This is my second year. That means that I don’t have a lot of experience even in my own field, so I imagine doing other things like teaching English and Math.

RENEE CASON: Everyone should have got that right.

JOHN MERROW: The new teachers approach test preparation with a mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism. On this day, Renee Cason worked on shortcuts, tricks to help kids find answers quickly and move on.

RENEE CASON: Now, I want to show you a trick so you can just breeze through this. All you have to do is look at the one’s column. Was there any other five?

STUDENTS: No.

RENEE CASON: You don’t have to move any further. That should’ve taken you… ( Snaps )… Like that. Do you see that on the test? You add the first two numbers, but you have to be sure you know how to add.

RENEE CASON: I try to set up the quizzes similar to how it will be for them on the test, so i’ll give them some multiple choice and try to show them some, like, process of elimination and trying to get them to write out, “how did you solve it?” Because some of them are like, “well, i just… I just read the instructions,” or “i just read it and i did it.” Well, that’s not good enough. What did you do? What did you add? What did you use? So i try… In vain, but i try.

JACK NASTASI: They’re going to signify a right angle by a little box here.

JOHN MERROW: Like Renee Cason, Jack Nastasi was also teaching his sixth graders test-taking skills.

JACK NASTASI: So they might ask you a question i saw on one of the tests…

JOHN MERROW: Have you taught your students some kind of tricks?

JACK NASTASI: I’m trying to teach them techniques on how to score some answers correct even if they don’t understand or have any clue what’s going on. Like, I mean, obviously we’re going from… They want to improve their score. So we’ve gone over plenty of different strategies on ways to eliminate answers, on ways to sometimes know how to do something even if you don’t understand it at the time. Yeah, we’ve gone through a ton of strategies.

JOHN MERROW: You made several references, “well, this will be on test. We have to get ready for the test.”

JACK NASTASI: What we’re doing right now is not curriculum work. It’s test preparation work for the city test. So as we’re going on, we’re learning… I’m going through questions. I’m not 100% sure what they know and don’t know — because the math curriculum, i mean, some of it coincides with the test or it’s all supposed to, but there’s a lot of things that i’m finding out that they don’t know.

JOHN MERROW: How about you kids? Are you nervous about this test?

STUDENT: I’m nervous because the books that they gave us, “Math in Context,” they don’t really have the stuff that we’re doing now. It’s just like that stuff is, like, easy, but it don’t explain what we have to do on the test.

JOHN MERROW: All the teaching fellows made judgments about their classes’ strengths and weaknesses and worked on the weak spots.

JANICE WRIGHT: So here’s the way that we could do it that you could do on your paper.

JOHN MERROW: Janice Wright had her fifth grade class doing word problems in preparation for the upcoming math tests.

JANICE WRIGHT: They have been doing better. And, you know, they know how they do. You know, they know what the scores are that they get and what they need to get, and they see there’s a big gap between that. So that’s kind of discouraging for them, which is why i’m trying to give them confidence., because when they see that they get seven right on the test out of 50 and they know that that’s not passing, they feel inferior to other kids.

JANICE WRIGHT: (teaching student) It now goes on… It moves one tick every second, and there are 60 seconds in a minute.

JOHN MERROW: But Janice had doubts about the emphasis on tests, which were given more than two months before the end of the school year.

JANICE WRIGHT: I do think there should be some testing, but just not as emphasized like it is over and over again, constant practice testing again and again and again. You know, it should just be like a general assessment at the end of the year. And I think it should be in June like the way we had tests the way I was… You know, you took a test, and that was it. And it wasn’t stretched all year long.

JOHN MERROW: Sarah Costello said she found it impossible to avoid being swept up in the test frenzy, but she was frustrated by the constant drilling.

SARAH COSTELLO: I don’t think it’s fair to them. They don’t like being… I don’t know. When they tell you all day long, you’re supposed to be doing cooperative learning, ongoing assessment, it’s supposed to be hands-on, they have the time to explore, they use manipulatives; instead of if I put 20 division questions on the board, they don’t want to see that. They’d rather the children work on five in one period, then they say, “oh, here you go, Kareem, it’s time to take your standardized test. You need to know that 20 divided by 5 is 4. You don’t have time to figure it out.” It’s like that… ( Snapping ). I don’t think it’s fair to test them in a way that’s not equivalent to how they’re being taught.

JOHN MERROW: So the test and the curriculum are not connected, aligned?

SARAH COSTELLO: No, because, I mean, think of it: Mid-April and they’re being tested on stuff. Well, we teach until the end of June, right? So i have all this stuff that’s coming forward in the Math curriculum, but that they’re being tested on it now. This is either you know it or you don’t, right, guys? What have I told you? If you get to a problem and you don’t know how to do, what are you going to do?

STUDENTS: Skip it.

SARAH COSTELLO: Skip it.

JOHN MERROW: Do you call this teaching to the test?

SARAH COSTELLO: Yes, and I hate it. Somewhat. But we… We were talking about it this morning, they’re tired of doing this. I’m tired of doing this. We’re ready for the test.

JOHN MERROW: Principal LeRoy Johnson defends the narrow focus.

LEROY JOHNSON: We cannot do the eclectic teaching when you’re taking a particular test. I mean, if you’re taking the LSATS or other tests that we take in our profession, we actually practice those tests. No one says anything’s wrong with that. I mean, Kaplan would be out of business if that was the case. So it’s nothing wrong with doing that, I mean, particularly as you come to the home stretch of these examinations. There’s some areas that kids may need to have… bone up on in terms of different types of questions, different types of skill questions. So it’s appropriate for kids to actually practice that in the classroom setting in test-like conditions, so that when they take the real test, it’s not unusual, it’s not uncomfortable for them.

JIM FLANNERY: It’s our responsibility to prepare them the best way we can with the help of the parents and make the children realize that you know, you do the best you can.

JOHN MERROW: Principal Johnson told the students that whoever does well on the tests will be eligible to win this new 21- speed bike. Another student will win a karaoke machine. Johnson hoped the prizes and his cheerful optimism would be contagious.

LEROY JOHNSON: There’s energy in the air, and I think that’s what you really sense, more so than pressure. I mean, there is pressure here, but it’s not pressure where we can’t perform. It’s pressure of the test. Here’s the big day, now is our chance.

JOHN MERROW: Most teachers and administrators were hopeful that all the test preparation would be worth it. How do you think your kids are going to do?

JACK NASTASI: I hope it’s… I hope good, i hope great. I hope the best for every one of them.

TEACHER: They’re going to rock, right?

STUDENTS: Yes.

TEACHER: I hope they’re going to do well. They’re ready.

JOHN MERROW: Do you think this will work, this, what you’re doing?

TEACHER: I don’t guarantee it. It might. I don’t know. To be honest with you, i don’t know.

JOHN MERROW: There’s reason for cautious optimism, because students at PS-25 did better last year than they did in 1999. But will their performance improve enough to get them off the list of lowest-performing schools? That won’t be known until June, when test results become available. For now, all they can do is wait.