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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 12/13/2010

A Felliniesque education story

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Marc Epstein, a history teacher at Jamaica High School in Queens, N.Y., for the past 15 years, and a former dean of students. His articles on school violence, curriculum, and testing, have appeared in Education Next, City Journal and a number of New York newspapers. He blogs for the Huffington Post, and he contributed to A Consumer's Guide To High School History Textbooks, edited by Diane Ravitch. Epstein earned a PhD in Japanese - American Diplomatic history.

By Marc Epstein
If you’ve taken a look at the newspapers lately and tried to make sense out of the debates swirling around public education, it might feel as if you’ve walked into the middle of a showing of Fellini’s Satyricon. If that’s the case, don’t be alarmed. You are witnessing a story that has no coherent beginning, middle, or end. It really doesn’t make sense.

The New York City Department of Education is insisting on the right to release its data on teacher performance as it correlates to student results on state examinations

The United Federation of Teachers has taken the city to court claiming that release of this data violates a signed agreement between the two parties to the keep the data confidential.

But what is the point of even gathering data that anyone serious about education or testing knows is meaningless?

Although Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the New York Board of Regents, has issued a report prepared by Professor Daniel Koretz of Harvard University, asserting the state tests administered to students in elementary and middle school were not valid measurements of their abilities, this hasn’t deterred New York City.

Never one to admit error or defeat, outgoing Chancellor Joel Klein claims that even the flawed results provide valuable information about the teachers’ capabilities in the classroom.

Some believe that this was the “Wizard of Oz” moment that finally wore out Klein’s welcome mat at City Hall. All the claims of remarkable progress made under his direction seemed to vanish when Professor Koretz pulled the curtain away revealing that the great Oz was just a little old man doing it all with smoke and mirrors.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, while the Regents seemingly are re-tooling their tests and adjusting the scales so that their measurements will be true, word comes that the state is considering charging school districts for Regents exams. This would be a first since the Regents were first administered in 1865.

The Regents claim that budget cuts have forced them to shift the burden to the communities, who will either have to raise taxes, or cut into their operating budgets.

Although the Koretz study didn’t cover the high school Regents examinations, the affront that these exams presents to anyone who wants to get a valid measurement of student performance in our high schools has been well documented. State Commissioner of Education, David Steiner, admitted that the Regents scores might be exaggerated, too. The hope among educators that a real reform of the testing regime was in the offing seems to have been misplaced.

In the midst of cries to tie teacher evaluations to student test performance, the Regents have decided to eliminate a series of these exams in order to cut operating costs. German, Latin, and Hebrew have been eliminated. Italian appears to be next on the chopping block. The original intent was to slash more of the exams, but the Board of Regents retreated when the news was met with disbelief.

Merryl Tisch increasingly looks like the captain of a ship that has some members of the crew bailing water out the leaky vessel, while the others are filling it with buckets of seawater.

For those committed to teacher evaluations based on tests, how do they plan on evaluating teachers when there are no tests? Those testing proponents who want to eliminate seniority hiring laws also, have yet to explain how art, music, health and physical education teachers will be evaluated, since these subject areas don’t offer state examinations to begin with.

The response of school administrators in Nassau and Suffolk counties is to band together and form a testing alternative to fill the vacuum that’s being left by the state.

This represents devolution at its worst. One of the original purposes of the Regents examination system was to ensure that students throughout the state had equal standards and opportunities provided by the public education system. Cities like New York and Buffalo, for example, with greater resources than rural parts of the state, could provide more courses and an abundance of qualified instructors.

The Regents would see to it that even small towns would meet big city standards, and to that end created the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) in 1948. But now, the advantaged suburbs, unwilling to see the dumbing down process visited on them by political forces that want to pretend that they’ve turned things around in the struggling cities, are prepared to go out on their own and create exams as the state eliminates them.

If all of this seems Felliniesque, don’t worry; you have not lost your senses. What is apparent, however, is that the people who run the show have. If public education is to survive in this state, some sort of grassroots demand for a return to standards has to coalesce. If it should not, New York ‘s slide into the status of a third tier state will be inexorable.


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 13, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Standardized Tests, Teacher assessment  | Tags:  david steiner, fellini, how to assess teachers, merryl tisch, new york board of education, nyc schools, releasing test scores, standardized tests, teacher assessment, teachers, test scores released  
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The Regents exam, as with many others, are the gift that keeps on giving...nothing. They are bottomless pits that engage the unengaged, research research on individualism, and drain coffers of needed money.

The idea we can test to even the scales while only failing students or pondering results is insanity at its best. Any adult with two children, even twins, knows they are hardly alike in every way.

When we start tailoring tests to match a child's learning path, not their age group or the classmate's ranking, we will see improvement. Until then, YAWN...time for another nap.

Posted by: educ8er | December 13, 2010 7:19 AM | Report abuse

The saddest part in this tale is that NYSUT and AFT have completely capitulated to the Race to the Top fraud. They bent to the political pressure to compromise core principles and gained nothing in terms of public good will or even acknowledgment from politicians for their cooperation. In their feeble attempt at appeasement, NYSUT and AFT have sold its members, and more importantly the children of New York State further down the muck stream that RttT perpetuates.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | December 13, 2010 8:39 AM | Report abuse

I read somewhere that the Regents exams had changed since the 1990s. Is that true?

Posted by: ubblybubbly | December 13, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

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