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Mandated Tests Get Failing Grade

Nerves are frayed in schools across the area today because the state-mandated eighth-grade math tests are to be given tomorrow. But students and teachers at Scarsdale Middle School are taking the tests in stride, if they are taking them at all.

Fran Antell will not permit her daughter to take the math exam, or the English, science and social studies tests mandated by the state in the eighth grade.

"It's something we have discussed as a family," Antell said. "I've been very clear it is not her decision. I have decided these tests are not healthy for her, or for any other student."

Antell, a member of a local group called STOP, State Tests Opposed by Parents, said she doesn't want to see Scarsdale become a "test-prep factory."

Since an organized Scarsdale boycott three years ago, when half the eighth grade stayed home on test days, resulting in a rebuke from the state commissioner of education, more students have taken the tests, though the required 95 percent has not materialized. This spring, for example, 7 percent of eighth-grade students did not take the test, either because they were out or because they attended school during the English Language Arts test, checked off a box saying they refused to participate, then read quietly at their desks. If more than 5 percent are not tested this week, the state promises to put the district on a list of "Schools in Need of Improvement."

"The improvement required will be in participation," said Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the state Education Department. "So the school will be required to develop a plan to improve participation."

Placing Scarsdale on that list can do nothing but embarrass the state, opponents say. One of the wealthiest communities in the country, Scarsdale consistently graduates 100 percent of its students, who then go on to the most competitive colleges.

"I find it ludicrous that simply knowing that one or two more children take the test will move us from a school in need of improvement to a passing school," said parent Leslie Berkovitz of STOP. "We feel we do a good job looking at ourselves to determine where curriculum needs improvement. I think we also do an excellent job of identifying children in need of help long before the eighth grade."

Scarsdale parents and educators, like those in a few other high-performing districts, say their curriculum is tougher than that required to meet state standards. To teach to the state tests would require a radical change that would hinder student growth, they say. For example, 60 percent of eighth-graders in the district now take ninth-grade math. Within two years, all eighth-graders will be at that level, said Principal Michael T. McDermott, because of a new curriculum that is less repetitive and brings them along faster.

Opponents also say one test is not an accurate measure of how well a student knows a subject, the tests are unproven, and giving students more tests 13 hours' worth on top of the school assessments is a stress that nobody needs. So Scarsdale parents and administrators have for the most part agreed not to emphasize the tests, and not to blink when scores fail to reflect the usual Scarsdale level of achievement. Of the Scarsdale students who took the math test last year, 88 percent met or exceeded the standards.

Late last week, the word "test" didn't even come up in teacher Steve Weiss' eighth-grade math classes. In the advanced class, for example, students were asked to apply their knowledge of mean, median, mode, range and average in describing sets of numbers, and to apply algebra and geometry to profits and losses at a fictional passport-photo shop.

Weiss already had given students packets about the state test to familiarize them with the kinds of questions they would see, but that was about it.

"I could get my kids to do a lot of rote memorization and get my scores up. But that takes away from real progress and enriching activities," he said, adding that he does not feel pressure from his bosses to raise test scores the way his colleagues do at other schools.

His principal intends to keep it that way.

"We are very low-key about competitiveness," McDermott said. "You don't want winners and losers at this level, which is what the state system does."

At least one of his students takes it further than that.

"The state is stupid," said eighth-grader Max Sampkins, who doesn't think much of the federal No Child Left Behind Act either. It is "the exact opposite of what it should be," he said.

— Meryl Hyman Harris
The Journal News


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