Sacrificing the Arts for Standardized Testing

 

From the site, northjersey.com comes this story about how kids are dropping electives in order to prepare for standardized tests. While there are some benefits – as one teacher puts it, it allows her to teach the subject, not to the test – how far are we willing to compromise a good, all-around education in order to generate better test results? Must EVERY student excel in science? What happens to all our artists when we channel them away from their interests and skills like this? And what does it teach us all about the arts – that they are so expendable in the service of math and science?

 

Article:

The state’s graduation exam should hold few surprises for struggling students in North Jersey since they’ve probably been taking mandatory test-prep classes since freshman year.

High schools throughout the region are enrolling marginal students in classes like Test Taking Skills and HSPA Math, which use workbooks supplied by the test designers and feature lessons on how certain questions might trip a student up. Districts including Elmwood Park, Passaic Valley Regional High School, Englewood, Hackensack, Garfield and Teaneck offer the classes.

They don’t replace regular academic courses like algebra and geometry, but they do fill up elective course periods when students might be studying music or art.

"It’s all about the tests — it’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it has gone," said Hasbrouck Heights math supervisor Joseph Mastropietro. "The key is we want them to graduate from high school and move on to college."

Critics of standardized tests, which are required under the federal No Child Left Behind act, say this sort of focus reduces student learning to only what can be measured on a standardized test. Proponents of the test-centered accountability movement argue such exams are the best way to ensure all schools are teaching all students the skills they’ll need after graduation.

The law requires every student in New Jersey to pass the High School Proficiency Assessment to earn a diploma. An easier alternative exam is available to those who repeatedly fail, but new state rules strongly discourage districts from offering it to too many students. The state is eventually planning to replace the HSPA with end-of-course exams, but that change is years away.

So for now, at Lakeland Regional High School in Wanaque, students judged at risk of failing the test are required to take a review class. The classes are offered during students’ daily study hall periods, so they do not lose an elective, said Superintendent Al Guazzo.

Even so, the emphasis on tests "definitely takes away from creativity and from other aspects of education, and focuses us very narrowly on test preparation," he said. "I’m not at all happy with that."

In Hasbrouck Heights, students with low eighth-grade math scores and grades below a "C-" must take HSPA Math 9 — and, if they fail to improve, HSPA Math 10, 11 and 12. The courses are a great success, said Mastropietro; virtually everyone who takes part eventually passes the test and graduates, and teachers in traditional math classes can limit the time they spend discussing the HSPA, he said.

"You don’t want algebra class to be teaching to the test," he said. "You want it to be teaching algebra."

During a recent HSPA math class for juniors, teacher Amanda Kistner used real-world examples and a workbook created by the test’s manufacturer in a lesson that combined math and test-taking skills.

"A lot of times on the HSPA, you’ll see ‘cannot be determined’ as an answer," she said. "Really look at that. If they take the time to write it, check into it."

She also cautioned against getting confused by math terminology in questions about calculating angles.

"Think of it," she said. "The interior of your car is inside your car. So the interior angle is inside the lines."

Parents complain about the emphasis on tests, especially in the younger grades, said Hasbrouck Heights Superintendent Joseph Luongo. "But after you explain that we can’t take the chance of your kid having a bad experience on the 11th-grade test, they understand."

Required test-prep classes are "a natural response" to test-centered educational policies, said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of Fairtest, a non-profit agency critical of standardized tests.

"This phenomenon is reasonably widespread," he said. "That’s particularly discouraging from our perspective. It’s made schools test-prep centers because scores are what matters."

But there also are benefits to the annual scrutiny that tests provide, said Elmwood Park Superintendent Joseph Casapulla.

"I think in the past, there was a lot of social promotion going on, where kids were passed on regardless of skill level," he said. "I think everybody felt good about it, but in some instances kids were getting out of school without having the skills they needed. … [The tests] have made everybody’s job a little bit more difficult, but I think the kids have these essential skills now, for the most part."

E-mail: carroll@northjersey.com

The state’s graduation exam should hold few surprises for struggling students in North Jersey since they’ve probably been taking mandatory test-prep classes since freshman year.

Christine Surrago helps a student in her 11th-grade math class at Lakeland Regional High School. Al Guazzo, school superintendent, says the test-prep classes are held during students’ daily study periods so as not to cut into elective courses. Even so, he says, focusing on tests takes away from other aspects of education.

High schools throughout the region are enrolling marginal students in classes like Test Taking Skills and HSPA Math, which use workbooks supplied by the test designers and feature lessons on how certain questions might trip a student up. Districts including Elmwood Park, Passaic Valley Regional High School, Englewood, Hackensack, Garfield and Teaneck offer the classes.

They don’t replace regular academic courses like algebra and geometry, but they do fill up elective course periods when students might be studying music or art.

"It’s all about the tests — it’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it has gone," said Hasbrouck Heights math supervisor Joseph Mastropietro. "The key is we want them to graduate from high school and move on to college."

Critics of standardized tests, which are required under the federal No Child Left Behind act, say this sort of focus reduces student learning to only what can be measured on a standardized test. Proponents of the test-centered accountability movement argue such exams are the best way to ensure all schools are teaching all students the skills they’ll need after graduation.

The law requires every student in New Jersey to pass the High School Proficiency Assessment to earn a diploma. An easier alternative exam is available to those who repeatedly fail, but new state rules strongly discourage districts from offering it to too many students. The state is eventually planning to replace the HSPA with end-of-course exams, but that change is years away.

So for now, at Lakeland Regional High School in Wanaque, students judged at risk of failing the test are required to take a review class. The classes are offered during students’ daily study hall periods, so they do not lose an elective, said Superintendent Al Guazzo.

Even so, the emphasis on tests "definitely takes away from creativity and from other aspects of education, and focuses us very narrowly on test preparation," he said. "I’m not at all happy with that."

In Hasbrouck Heights, students with low eighth-grade math scores and grades below a "C-" must take HSPA Math 9 — and, if they fail to improve, HSPA Math 10, 11 and 12. The courses are a great success, said Mastropietro; virtually everyone who takes part eventually passes the test and graduates, and teachers in traditional math classes can limit the time they spend discussing the HSPA, he said.

"You don’t want algebra class to be teaching to the test," he said. "You want it to be teaching algebra."

During a recent HSPA math class for juniors, teacher Amanda Kistner used real-world examples and a workbook created by the test’s manufacturer in a lesson that combined math and test-taking skills.

"A lot of times on the HSPA, you’ll see ‘cannot be determined’ as an answer," she said. "Really look at that. If they take the time to write it, check into it."

She also cautioned against getting confused by math terminology in questions about calculating angles.

"Think of it," she said. "The interior of your car is inside your car. So the interior angle is inside the lines."

Parents complain about the emphasis on tests, especially in the younger grades, said Hasbrouck Heights Superintendent Joseph Luongo. "But after you explain that we can’t take the chance of your kid having a bad experience on the 11th-grade test, they understand."

Required test-prep classes are "a natural response" to test-centered educational policies, said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of Fairtest, a non-profit agency critical of standardized tests.

"This phenomenon is reasonably widespread," he said. "That’s particularly discouraging from our perspective. It’s made schools test-prep centers because scores are what matters."

But there also are benefits to the annual scrutiny that tests provide, said Elmwood Park Superintendent Joseph Casapulla.

"I think in the past, there was a lot of social promotion going on, where kids were passed on regardless of skill level," he said. "I think everybody felt good about it, but in some instances kids were getting out of school without having the skills they needed. … [The tests] have made everybody’s job a little bit more difficult, but I think the kids have these essential skills now, for the most part."

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