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THE SCORES ARE THE THING

12/6/99

    By now anyone even remotely familiar with public school matters has ventured an opinion on the results on the so called "high stakes tests" that were recently made public. Here in Plainview-Old Bethpage, the predictable hysteria has broken out as some of our scores are apparently not as high as some people had imagined they would be. What are we to make of these scores on the 4th and 8th grade tests? What do they tell us about the quality of the academic program in our schools?

    Were I to say that they tell us little of importance, though I spoke my mind, and I believe the truth, I would surely be seen as an apologist for the staff. I can hear the charge. "There goes the union trying to explain away the shortcomings of their members."

    So, let me put my readers at ease. I believe we can and have an obligation to get our scores up. I also suspect that it won't require a herculean effort to do so. What must be done?

    The staff are already at work to align the sequence of the skills they teach with the timing of the tests. We clearly have very fine high school test results by any measure. That suggests that by the end of a child's education in our district, he/she learns what the state says is necessary, and more. Yet, we have probably not been teaching some of what the state requires on the 4th and 8th grade exams in time to prepare children to get high marks on them. Before the advent of the exams, the order in which we taught skills often didn't matter as much. It does now. This should be a relatively easy problem to fix.

    More difficult to handle is the very palpable need to abandon some of the pseudo-philosophical notions in the minds of some decision makers in our district that there are only certain ways to teach reading and other skills. Too often our teachers' creativity is stifled by a mindless rigidity that craves allegiance to a particular educational program rather than meeting the needs of students. A teacher often has to choose between doing what is right for a student and pleasing his/her boss.  A consensus needs to be built around the idea that it really doesn't matter how a child learns a skill or how a teacher presents it.  It's the learning that's important. If some students need workbooks, let's get them. If some require heavy doses of phonics instruction, we are foolish not to provide it just because some professor somewhere says it is not the ideal way to teach a child to read.

    Perhaps even more difficult is the need to build parent and administrative support for creating a school environment more conducive to encouraging our students to achieve at higher levels. Our teachers need support for firm but fair discipline. We don't need lots of rules, but we need a few basic ones that are consistently enforced. We need to understand that self-esteem is built only by real accomplishment, not bending requirements and making excuses. I recently brought a high school English class of reluctant learners to roaring laughter when I suggested to them that I knew a secret that they never suspected I knew.  They couldn't stop laughing when I told them I knew that they thought  many of the adults in our high school were crazy for letting them get away with the things they get away with.

    The remaining broad area that must be addressed is class size. Our class sizes are currently some of the highest in the history of our district. As we begin to open new spaces, we must be sure that we don't have classes of 28 and 30. It is simply too easy for those students who do poorly on these tests to get lost is such large classes.   Fortunately, a consensus seems to have developed to lower class sizes in our district.

    We can clearly raise the scores of our students on the new state tests. With some thought and effort, we can teach them better too.

 

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