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LI students take 'benchmark' tests

Teacher Jim Woska teaches about heart healthy foods

Teacher Jim Woska teaches about heart healthy foods to kindergartners during physical education class at the George Jackson Elementary School in Jericho. The Jericho school district has cancelled some scheduled days off in order to make up time lost for Sandy. (Oct. 9, 2012) Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

It’s not just spring exams anymore.

Thousands of students across Long Island and the state have taken an unprecedented round of back-to-school tests this month and in September, including in classes where formal tests rarely have been given, such as music, art and physical education.

The large wave of fall tests — dubbed “pretests” by many educators — is driven mostly by the new state mandate requiring evaluation of every teacher’s job performance. The idea is to measure students’ progress by comparing this fall’s performance against spring finals, data that ultimately will be used to rate teachers.

In the Roosevelt district, a hush fell over school hallways last week as more than 1,000 students in grades 3-8 sat for two hours of standardized “benchmark” testing in math and reading. In Bethpage last month, dozens of high school students in choral music classes taped 10 minutes of singing and also took 40-minute written exams.

“It’s unfamiliar territory,” said Deborah Stehlik, a music coordinator for the Bethpage district. She won state recognition for drafting a model assessment system, known in Albany as a Student Learning Objective, or SLO.

A spot check of 26 districts in Nassau and Suffolk, conducted at Newsday’s request by the two public-relations firms representing those districts, found that all but three of them, for the first time, conducted fall testing on a large scale. Roosevelt, which was not included in the survey, started pretesting last year.

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. described early assessments as a tried-and-true method of gauging students’ preparedness. As an example, he cited college professors who have long assigned essays on the first day of classes to assess writing skills.

“Ultimately, the question is whether there is value in determining the knowledge and skills that students bring to the first day of class,” King said. “And the answer is clearly ‘yes.’

He also stressed that the state doesn’t require fall testing, and that districts have other options for measuring students’ readiness, such as using test scores and class grades from prior years. Island educators have noted, however, that Albany appears to encourage fall tests by posting website examples constructed from questions used on past Regents exams.

The new tests were a big surprise for high school students, many of whom were confronted with eight or nine exams during their first weeks in class. A frequent complaint from students and teachers alike is that the new assessments are in addition to numerous tests already in place, such as spring tests given in most grades.

In Jericho, as in many communities, virtually all the district's 3,000 students took pretests during the second and third week of September, often in several subjects and lasting 40 minutes each.

"The idea of adding yet another test has become surreal," said Michael Hartnett, an English teacher at Jericho High School.

Many educators deride early testing, especially in subjects such as physics and geometry, where students have little advance knowledge.

At a recent state hearing in Old Westbury, an audience of more than 200 educators and others erupted in laughter and applause as a high school principal from Rockville Centre addressed the issue.

"Something is wrong when my students must take a pretest comprised of physics questions before they have taken physics," Principal Carol Burris said. "Thank goodness my school doesn't offer sky diving!"

Some teachers report that students show indifference to the new tests by randomly filling in answer-sheet bubbles. Deborah Cuttitta Pekoff, a Syosset High School science teacher, is among many worried that teens don't take the effort seriously.

"When they find out it doesn't count, it becomes a big joke to them," said Pekoff, who pretested 75 ninth-graders in Earth Science, using questions from past exams.

Attitudes among educators differ from subject to subject, however. John Mankowich, a curriculum associate in charge of Jericho's physical education program, sees merit in testing that tracks student progress.

All Jericho students, he said, have taken pretests developed by the New York State Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. Test questions measure students' understanding of health and fitness, depending on their age.

For example, Mankowich said, kindergartners might be shown pictures of other children who are active or simply sitting, and asked which lifestyle increases heart rate. Jericho's goal for teachers is to help at least 80 percent of students become proficient on fitness issues.

"I think it's helped us gear our instruction a little bit better and focus on what we need to be doing," Mankowich said.

Therese Montanile, a Wantagh mother of two, learned of pretesting several weeks ago, when her sixth-grader came home from school and said, "We had to take a test, and nobody knew anything on it."

Montanile said not to worry. The test was in reading literacy, and the mother later told Newsday that she saw some value in assessments designed to measure readiness.

On the other hand, Montanile is concerned about overall growth in testing.

"I just don't want to put too much stress on the kids," she said.

With Lauren R. Harrison



Forty percent of a teacher’s performance ratings now must be based on student improvement on standardized tests or comparable measures. The remaining 60 percent is based on criteria such as classroom observations.

Most school districts have chosen to measure students’ academic growth by conducting new tests in September and October — so-called pretests — and then comparing the results with performance on state tests to be administered in the spring.

The state calls the new assessment systems Student Learning Objectives, or SLOs. Every course is supposed to have its own SLO. The only exception is instruction in English and math in grades 4-8, where the state itself calculates student growth.

The state’s adoption of the new evaluation system was key to winning nearly $700 million in federal Race to the Top school improvement money. The state’s elected officials and teacher union representatives both agreed to the system.

— John Hildebrand

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