Students suffer, not learn, when taught to take tests

By Bob Harris

I was in London for five days before taking a cruise around the British Isles on the Grand Princess. While in London and in some of the cities I stopped at, I picked up copies of the Daily Telegraph, Times and Guardian. The British were as concerned with their youths' education as we are with ours. Years ago, I took a New York University graduate course in England, which studied the British education system.

Two years ago, the city Department of Education employed English pedagogues to come to the city and evaluate our schools. The mayor and schools chancellor have pledged to improve our schools. I had met two years ago some English educators, who were here evaluating Queens high schools.

Imagine my surprise to discover in the British newspapers that the Princeton-based Education Testing Service had been hired to administer the Standard Assessment Tests in Britain. This year, it was Australians who came to Queens to evaluate our schools.

It is ironic that two of the great English-speaking nations have hired consultants from the other country to come over and evaluate their educational system. What is wrong with our own educators? Of course, if a foreign group evaluates one's schools, there is an exotic or professional veneer to the results.

The ETS glow has been dimmed, according to the British papers. It seems the ETS could not produce the marked British SAT tests on time and many are unhappy. Test markers received the test late, some pupils did not exist, schools had the wrong papers returned to them, the new ETS-introduced online system was too complex and slow, the special telephone numbers set up to help parents did not answer and some schools were sent papers which had not been marked. About a third of the secondary school students did not receive their results by the end of last term.

Some British critics complain that teachers teach to the test and students do not know the material they are being tested on. There was an article in the Guardian that gave statistics which showed that about 40 percent of the students did not reach the goals they should have reached. Another complaint was that the emphasis was on teaching, reading and math so students would do well on their tests to the detriment of other subjects.

The same page in the Guardian had another article which celebrated higher pass-rate, A-level test scores for 15- or 16-year-old Scottish students, which rose from 71.7 percent to 73.4 percent. The same article complained about grade inflation for the A-level tests. Naturally, officials praised the higher pass rates.

We in Queens face the same situations faced by the British. In middle-class neighborhoods, about 80 percent or 90 percent of our children succeed. Overall, about 60 percent or 70 percent succeed. Some schools do poorly. Some students may take an extra year or two to graduate from high school.

This column has written on the subject over the years. There is no one cause nor solution. Figures do not lie, but liars can figure. Solutions cannot be imposed. Our nation is used to free speech and discussion. The problem is some leaders are trying to impose a rigid solution.

Some students have so many problems that they may need help. If a school excludes them, it will be an achieving school and have good statistics. Some teachers want to try different ways to help students who have special problems. Some teachers have family responsibilities.

One has to give credit to our leaders, who are trying to improve school quality, but our schools are not businesses and children not products on an assembly line. Also, do not forget our students' positive achievements in school. If only the media would emphasize more achievement rather than problems.

GOOD AND BAD NEWS OF THE WEEK: It seems Michael Phelps has become the athlete with the most gold medals ever won in one Olympiad. It is a tribute to our society that a child with too much energy channeled it into swimming as an outlet for his excess energy. It is hoped that our educational establishment is doing the same thing with our youth in Queens and not cuffing out athletics for more test-taking skills.

It seems China has faked the ages of several girls who are 13 or 14 years old and had them compete as 16-year-olds. A young, lighter 14-year-old can do things which a 16- or 18-year-old athlete cannot. They are also fearless since they do not know the damage they can do to their bodies by doing too much.

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