JEFFREY BROWN: Now we grade the students, but how do we determine if a school is "good" or "bad"?
NewsHour Education Correspondent John Merrow explores the question in this report.
JOHN MERROW: Reading is the foundation of all learning. But according to the nation's report card, only 33 percent of fourth-graders are competent readers.
At this elementary school in New York City, 33 percent would be good news. Last year on the state reading test, only 18 percent of fourth-graders were on grade level, strong evidence of a failing school.
STUDENTS: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
JOHN MERROW: By contrast, this school is filled with enthusiastic students. Teachers provide a supportive and nurturing environment.
Principal Jorge Perdomo is a dedicated leader. And the students are excited to learn, strong evidence that the school is a success. But what you're looking at is in fact the same school, PS-1 in New York City's South Bronx. It serves about 700 students from pre-K through fifth grade, most of whom qualify for free lunch.
Based on its reading scores, the school is failing. But, in person, it seems to be thriving. Is it a good school or a bad school? There may be a lot of schools like PS-1. How should they be judged? Do you believe what you read or what you see? Could educational quality be like beauty, in the eye of the beholder, or does the test score say it all? We went back to PS-1 to find out more.
WOMAN: Nice and loud, especially on the vowels.
JOHN MERROW: Our search for answers began in Rachael Hunt's first-grade classroom. We found her students getting a lesson in phonics, the building block of reading. They're learning that letters make sounds, that groups of letters make different sounds and that, when you put those letters together, they make words.
It may appear to be a simple lesson, but it's not. Ms. Hunt's students seem to be getting it. What they are doing is called decoding, but decoding is only half the battle. Understanding what the words mean is a much harder skill called comprehension. It's where many children fall flat.
OK. Get your eyes closed. No cheating.
To test that skill, I took over the class, asked the kids to close their eyes, and wrote a nonsense story on the board.
OK. You ready to read this story?
JOHN MERROW: Is there anything wrong with that story?
JOHN MERROW: What's wrong with that story?
STUDENT: There's no such thing as a blue pancake.
JOHN MERROW: There's no such thing as a blue pancake. All right. Is there anything else wrong with that story?
STUDENT: Pancakes don't have no mouth.
JOHN MERROW: Pancakes don't have a mouth. Anything else?
STUDENT: They don't swim.
JOHN MERROW: They can't swim. OK. So, it's -- maybe it's not a very good story.
STUDENTS: The blue pancake went swimming.
JOHN MERROW: Catherine Otu's first-graders across the hall were also able to understand the story.
Is there anything wrong with that story?
STUDENT: It doesn't make sense because a pancake can't swim.
JOHN MERROW: A pancake can't swim? Is there anything else?
STUDENT: A pancake can't eat anything because they don't have a mouth.
JOHN MERROW: Because they don't have a mouth.
By the end of the day, it was clear to me that most of PS-1's first-graders were on their way to becoming competent readers. So, what happens between first and fourth grade? Remember, according to last year's state test, only 18 percent of fourth-graders at PS-1 were reading on grade level.
We went upstairs to Michelle Alpert's fourth-grade class to find out.
MICHELLE ALPERT, Teacher: In first grade, it's all about reading the words. And everything is so literal. But by the time you get to fourth grade, it's -- there's a much bigger thinking component.
BRENDA CARTAGENA, Teacher: The fourth grade is a lot harder, a lot harder.
JOHN MERROW: Brenda Cartagena has been teaching for 12 years.
BRENDA CARTAGENA: If you look at the test, the third-grade test, and compare it to the fourth-grade test, it's night and day.
JOHN MERROW: The state's fourth-grade reading test expects students to draw inferences and conclusions from what they read, a complicated skill.
But why aren't children able to meet the demands of fourth grade? Alpert believes that, by the time students enter her class, their often difficult home lives have started to take a toll.
MICHELLE ALPERT: They're not as innocent anymore. They're realizing the things that are affecting their schoolwork. You know, I mean, I have homeless students in my room. I have students with fathers in jail. There's drugs. So, that obviously comes into play at a certain point as well.
JOHN MERROW: Both teachers believe that the social and academic challenges their students face in the early grades catch up to them by fourth grade.
BRENDA CARTAGENA: So, I have readers even as low as first grade through sixth grade.
JOHN MERROW: In your fourth-grade class.
BRENDA CARTAGENA: Right.
JOHN MERROW: So, your job is to do what?
BRENDA CARTAGENA: Make miracles.
JOHN MERROW: I wondered how the fourth-grade class might perform on the state test this year, and asked Ms. Cartagena to send me two of her students who were reading below great level.
Jeannette, who is 9, came first.
STUDENT: So far, I have hoped to find many new species.
JOHN MERROW: I asked her to read a passage about dragonflies from last year's state test.
STUDENT: About 5,500 dragonfly species buzz around the world. Who doesn't like -- like looking at these amazing insects?
JOHN MERROW: What are species?
BRENDA CARTAGENA: Many kinds.
JOHN MERROW: Kinds. It's kinds of species. Right. Exactly. Yes.
STUDENT: Late in the summer, on a cool evening...
JOHN MERROW: Next came Brian, who is 11.
STUDENT: Father heard a song high in the tree. Listen. When it grows bigger, it -- it left its shell behind.
JOHN MERROW: Wow. Yes, I know. This word is an interesting one.
JOHN MERROW: What does that mean?
STUDENT: So, it means, like, it stood there without moving for a second.
JOHN MERROW: Without moving, OK, no motion.
I also asked them questions from the tests.
STUDENT: Which word best describes Abby?
JOHN MERROW: A.
JOHN MERROW: B.
JOHN MERROW: C.
STUDENT: Funny, and strong.
JOHN MERROW: B? Which is...
STUDENT: Because she was finding out -- she asked her dad how does a turtle get out of his shell?
JOHN MERROW: Read the question and then tell me the answer.
STUDENT: According to the article, what can adult dragonfly do?
JOHN MERROW: A.
STUDENT: A, living for years.
JOHN MERROW: B.
STUDENT: B, flying backward.
JOHN MERROW: C.
STUDENT: Walk on legs.
JOHN MERROW: D.
STUDENT: Swim in water.
JOHN MERROW: Which answer would you give?
STUDENT: That he can, B., fly backwards.
JOHN MERROW: Because you learned that. OK. So, you can really take this apart.
These supposedly below-grade-level readers were able to read and understand passages from previous state tests. So, why were fourth-grade test scores so low?
Tell me about the kids. Are they nervous before the tests?
BRENDA CARTAGENA: Some of them, they do get a lot of anxiety, some of them. And some of them will shut down because they get so nervous.
JOHN MERROW: In many public schools, before students take state tests, they spend up to several weeks preparing and practicing.
Do you spend a lot of time teaching kids how to take a test?
BRENDA CARTAGENA: To some degree, yes, because I do think that there is an art to test-taking. So, I want to give them whatever strategies I can to make them more successful, you know, especially my -- my lower-functioning ones.
JOHN MERROW: For school leaders and policy-makers across the country, test scores are typically the only evidence used to determine whether a school is doing a good job. The stakes are high.
BRENDA CARTAGENA: The system takes the fun out of reading. I want them to read for enjoyment. I want them to grab that book because it's fun. I tell them, reading, you travel, you meet new friends, you learn how to do new things. But it's very difficult, you know? They take the joy out. And it's hard to infuse it back.
MICHELLE ALPERT: I don't know what the better solution is. But I do think obviously that this puts way too much value on test scores. There has to be some sort of -- you know, something else taken into account if you really want to measure a school's success, a teacher's success, a student's success.
JOHN MERROW: So, what you think? Is PS-1 a good school or a bad school? You may have already made up your mind, but the people who make decisions about budgets, about who gets hired, who gets fired, they rely on test scores. PS-1's fourth-graders took the state test in early May. Those results aren't expected until July.