Turnover is behind lower scores, principal says

By Elizabeth O’Brien

As parents and community members expressed concern last week over the drop in fourth-grade reading test scores at P.S. 89, the principal stressed that the numbers do not reflect the quality of education at the school.

New York State’s standardized English language arts test, or E.L.A., was administered in February to 200,000 fourth graders. As a gauge of performance, the test has far-reaching implications for individual students and for New York City schools.

The percentage of general education students testing at or above grade level at P.S. 89 fell from 96.7 percent in 2002 to 73.7 this year.

“We were doing very well until this point and something happened,” said Tom Goodkind, the father of a first-grader at P.S. 89 and a member of the youth and education committee of Community Board 1. “I don’t know what happened.”

“I’m really disappointed with the school’s overall performance,” said a mother of a fourth-grade boy, who declined to give her name. She also said she was dissatisfied with her son’s individual scores.

Ronnie Najjar, the principal of P.S. 89, said that the drop could be traced in part to the large turnover the school experienced after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. Half of this year’s 47 fourth graders are new, Najjar said.

Some of the new P.S. 89 fourth graders were at a disadvantage taking the test because they did not have prior experience with the instructional style of the Battery Park City elementary school, which often engages students in the same way as the test, Najjar said.

“The E.L.A. test actually measures the cumulative experience of literacy in kindergarten through fourth grade,” Najjar said in a telephone interview. 

Susan Schwartz, Clinical Coordinator for the Institute for Learning and Academic Achievement at the NYU Child Study Center, agreed that it was important to view such a large drop in context.

“If half of the class is new, then their background, in terms of the literature and math they’ve been exposed to, will have a significant impact on their test taking,” Schwartz said.

In a letter to fourth grade parents, Najjar stressed that neither the P.S. 89 curriculum nor the students were to blame for the decline.

“I do not want to make excuses nor in any way be negative towards our new children,” Najjar wrote. “I know what a high quality school P.S. 89 is and I want to reassure you that these scores do not reflect the quality of education your children are receiving.”

But some parents said there had been signs as early as last fall that this group of fourth graders might need extra help in preparing for the test, and they wondered why more efforts weren’t made to give the students a boost.

“If the class is not up to par, there should be programs in place to get them up to par,” said the father of a fourth grade son, who requested anonymity. He added, “I do believe in their curriculum and I do believe in Ronnie’s vision, but I think it’s been stunted.”

Najjar said that the school held about nine, 90-minute study sessions before the test for students who could particularly benefit from reinforcement. She said she might consider adding more sessions next year.

The E.L.A. test is administered over three days in late January or February. The scores are one element of the middle school application process, with higher scoring students generally having more options for intermediate education.

This year, E.L.A. scores also dropped at another local elementary school, P.S. 150, where the percentage of general education students scoring at or above grade level fell from 86.4 in 2002 to 70.8 this year. Alyssa Polack, principal of the small Tribeca school, said that with only 26 students tested, the scores were influenced by the lower performance of a handful of students.

E.L.A. scores are also used to measure the overall effectiveness of city schools. As part of his education overhaul, Mayor Mike Bloomberg identified 328 elite schools this spring, largely based on standardized test scores, that would be exempt from part or all of the uniform curriculum that will be implemented citywide starting this fall.

P.S. 89 was granted a two-year exemption from the standardized curriculum, but some parents worried that the exemption might not be renewed after the results from this year’s test are taken into account. The list of 328 schools has acquired a growing cachet over the last several months, with many parents viewing exclusion as a sign of failure.

Najjar said it was too early to worry how this year’s scores might affect P.S. 89’s position on the list. She stressed that the scores were only one, limited way of assessing a student’s ability.

“I don’t take it lightly, but it’s something you have to keep carefully in perspective,” Najjar said of the drop in scores.

Parents and educators have expressed concern that the test and the surrounding hype place an undue burden on nine and ten-year-old children.

Schwartz of N.Y.U. said that children do not need to know their exact scores or how they performed compared with their peers.  Instead, talk about the test should focus on a child’s individual needs, Schwartz said.

“It’s important that children be involved in discussions about their strengths and weaknesses,” Schwartz said.

Parents can help by asking their children what’s easy for them at school and what gives them trouble, Schwartz said. Parents can also facilitate learning by reading to their children and supporting them in doing their homework, she added.

While parents acknowledged that it was best not to project test anxiety onto their children, some said that they wished Najjar or P.S. 89 teachers would hold meetings with fourth-grade parents to discuss the drop.

Najjar said she plans to address the scores at the parent teacher association meeting later this month, but she currently had no other plans to meet with parents. She said that she responded to concerns in her letter and that she was talking to parents on the phone, but to hold special meetings would feed into what she called “a bit of hysteria.”

Of the decline, Najjar said, “It is disappointing, but I don’t see it as a defeat in any way.”


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