Volume 21, Number 16 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Aug. 29 - Sept. 4, 2008

Back to School

The test numbers add up in math for Downtown schools

By Laura Latzko

There were drops in some reading scores at Downtown schools this year but almost all did better than the average in Manhattan on fourth and eighth grade reading tests.

In general students did better on math than reading, officially called English Language Arts.

At P.S. 89 in Battery Park City, 97.2 percent of students in fourth grade scored in the third and fourth levels for the math test, the two passing grades. This number has increased from 94.7 percent last year. Reading test results showed a two point decrease this year for the fourth grade, going from 87.9 percent in 2007 to 85.9 percent this year. Scores for 89, however, are significantly higher than the averages for all Manhattan fourth graders.

For Manhattan, the averages for fourth graders were 61.4 percent in levels three and four for reading tests and 78.9 percent for math. In the eighth grade, an average of 61.1 percent of students passed reading tests while 71.2 percent scored in the top levels for the math test. Test scores in these grades are considered when admission decisions are made for middle and high schools.

Carolyn Happy, co-president of 89’s P.T.A., said the school’s curriculum is the reason that she chose the school for her daughter, who is now entering the second grade.

Happy, like many Downtown parents, said she likes the school because it is less focused on reading and math tests and more concerned with a balanced curriculum where students learn math, reading, and writing while studying other subjects, such as social studies.

Last year, Happy’s daughter learned about farmers’ markets in her social studies class in a hands-on way. Her daughter and her first grade classmates went to different markets and interviewed people in five boroughs, creating portfolios based on what they learned, and then created their own farmers’ market.

“I chose P.S. 89 because it is a progressive public school,” Happy said. “It does a more integrated curriculum… P.S. 89 is not a school that teaches to the test.”

P.S. 89 was not the only school that did well on the math test. Even schools where scores went down did well on the assessment, and some were almost perfect in nearly every grade, scoring 100 percent in the top levels.

On the reading test as well as math, NEST outscored the other schools, with 100 percent of students passing in a number of the upper and lower grades, including the third, fifth, seventh, and eighth grades. Many of these scores, including the third grade’s score, were an increase over 2007.

Tribeca schools P.S. 150 and P.S. 234 also did well on the math tests. Ninety percent or higher of the students passed at both. At 234, scores in the fifth grade saw the most increase, from 93.5 to 98 percent, but in all grades, over 90 percent passed.

Liat Silberman, P.T.A. president of 234, said tests are not the biggest concern for most parents. Last year, the big issue that the P.T.A. was addressing was overcrowding at 234.

“The Department of Education thought it wouldn’t get bad, but it is going to get worst,” Silberman said of overcrowding. “That’s really the learning issue.”

At 150, there was a 100 percent passing rate for third and fourth grade students in math, an increase for the latter, and all of the students in the third grade scored in the third and fourth levels for the reading tests while in other grades, they scored above 95 percent.

P.S. 150’s reading test success comes at a time when third graders at other schools are struggling. At a number of different schools, including P.S. 1, 2 and124, scores have dropped for this grade.

The two schools where reading scores have decreased the most were P.S. 1 and P.S. 2, both in Chinatown. In 2008, 63.6 percent of third graders scored in the third and fourth levels at P.S. 1, a decrease of more than 10 percent.

At P.S. 2, third grade reading scores decreased from 69.9 to 64.1 for the third and fourth levels. In other grades, there was an increase in reading scores. Principal Brett Gustafson said the drop in third grade reading scores at his and other schools could be a result of a more difficult test for the third grade. He said that he noticed “challenging parts to the test.”

Lower scores on the E.L.A. test, given statewide last January, have prompted some schools to decide to either continue to or start to focus more on reading and writing this year.

P.S. 1, P.S. 2, M.A.T., and Shuang Wen (P.S. 184) are all schools located in or near Chinatown, where principals and teachers have been finding ways to get children into smaller classes and groups where they will have individual help from teachers, especially on their English Language Arts skills.

At P.S. 1 and P.S. 2, additional classes are being added for students who struggle with speaking and writing in English. P.S. 1, a school where reading scores dropped in the third and fourth grades this year, will feature a new pre-kindergarten enrichment class where the emphasis will be on speaking skills. Half of the students in this class will be ones that have been in other special education classes, such as speech therapy. Amy Hom, principal at P.S. 1, said that although this class will have a similar curriculum as the rest, it will be smaller, with around 25 students, and will be more focused on oratory skills than others. Hom said that the school’s goal is, “to help people reach their potential, not just meet standards.”

At P.S. 1, 85 percent of the students are Asian-American, and some of them are not be fluent in English by the third grade, which is the first year they take the test. Principal Hom hopes that the class will help these as well as other students with speech and learning problems progress faster.

P.S. 2 Principal Brett Gustafson said that 93 percent of the families that are a part of the school do not speak English at home, and 85 percent of students are Asian-American while 7 percent are Hispanic-American.

The school has been working to bridge the language barrier through English as a Second Language classes. One more E.S.L. class will be added next year to the third grade level.

Gustafson said that he plans to continue with the learning plan that he installed in the school three years ago. This method emphasizes individual student growth. Students who have common difficulties with certain areas of English and math, such as algorithms, are put together in smaller groups with teachers, and more books are included in the curriculum that are at their levels so that they are encouraged to read inside and outside of school.

“We are seeing a lot of benefit from what we are doing,” Gustafson said.

Along with the third grade, there have also been decreases in reading test scores in the 6th and 8th grades in many middle schools, including P.S./I.S.126 (M.A.T.), J.H.S. 104 (Baruch), and I.S. 131. At M.A.T., the middle school part of P.S./I.S. 126, sixth grade scores have decreased from 71.7 percent in the third and fourth levels in 2007 to 65.3 percent in 2008.

M.A.T. principal Kerry Decker said that these lagging scores are not acceptable and need improvement. She said that she believes the transition to middle school is one of the major reasons that sixth grade scores are lower than those for other grades.

“The transition is difficult for many kids,” Decker said. “They change schools, and they are going through adolescence.”

Decker said that in some grades, such as the third and fourth, they had better years than others because of the success of the teachers in working with students and utilizing the skills the school trained them in. Fourth graders especially did well on the math test. At M.A.T., 100 percent of fourth graders scored in the third and fourth levels, as opposed to 67.7 percent in 2007.

This next school year, the 6th grade will be restructured so that students will be given more time to read and write, and they will also be put in fewer classes, with the same teachers for more than one subject. Decker believes that this restructuring will help make the transition from elementary to middle school easier and will also address the low E.L.A. test scores for sixth graders.

“I think we can do better, and we need to do better,” Decker said of reading test scores.

This restructuring, which will be paid for by state contract for excellence funds, includes students spending more time each week on reading and writing. They will be working 30 minutes more on writing and 100 on reading.

As a parent at M.A.T., Ann DeFalco puts less stock in test scores than the principal. DeFalco, who has a child entering 8th grade, said that she thinks too much pressure is put on students, especially in grades such as 4th and 7th where scores can help determine students’ placement in high school and middle school.

“We shouldn’t rearrange the curriculum for one test,” DeFalco said. “You have to be well-rounded. You have to have science.”

DeFalco said that although students at the school are offered enrichment programs, through arts and music classes, the school is often too concerned with reading and math tests that students take after only a few months of being back in school.

The principal of Shuang Wen, Ling Ling Chou, said many of the students in her school are immigrants who are coming from other countries, including China, and some do not arrive in the United States until they are in the fourth, fifth, or sixth grades.

“Some new immigrants, they are not good in their native languages,” Chou said. “They can speak it, but they can’t read and write it.”

Chou said that Shuang Wen will not be making drastic changes to the curriculum or installing new programs, but the school will focus even more on individual growth, as P.S. 2 is doing. The school is working on improving students’ reading skills by getting them to read in both English and their native tongues, and teachers take kids to the library every week as part of a school based program.

“We are paying more attention to individuals, spending more time with each one,” Chou said. “We are really checking on each individual, especially those who have had problems in the past.”

Students at Shuang Wen have continued to score 100 percent on the math tests in third, fourth, fifth, and sixth grades for the second or third year in a row.

Chou believes that her school has seen success because math is more universal. Although many of the immigrant students at the school struggle with reading and writing skills at first, they are often more familiar with math equations.

While many schools’ math scores have improved in 2008, there have been a few schools that haven’t done as well as others, including J.H.S. 104 (Baruch) and I.S. 131. Although these schools have seen growth from 2007 to 2008, scores for many of the middle schools are lower than for elementary schools. Baruch is on E. 21st St., but many Downtown students go there because it is the only zoned middle school for Lower Manhattan.

I.S. 89 was the only Downtown middle school to break 90 percent in math, where students in the sixth grade went from 85.3 to 97 percent. Students in the seventh grade also scored above 90 percent.

While all of Lower Manhattan elementary schools rank above the average reading scores for fourth grade, some of them are in the middle of the heap when compared to schools all over New York City.

Tom Goodkind, a Baruch parent and a C.P.A., calculated where Lower Manhattan schools’ fourth grade reading test scores ranked among all schools in New York in 2008, and he found that some schools were much stronger than others. He chose fourth grade reading scores, looking at how many scored in the third and fourth levels, because these are used to determine what middle school a student will attend.

“Fourth grade E.L.A. tests for public schools may be the most important test in young kids’ public school career,” said Goodkind, a B.P.C. resident.

In Lower Manhattan, the elementary school that rated highest was NEST. Out of all the schools in New York, numbering 734, Goodkind found its elementary school to be the ninth strongest based on reading scores in the fourth grade. Schools that were right behind it were P.S. 150 and Shuang Wen, which were 11th and 19th in his ranking.

The Lower Manhattan schools that scored the lowest were P.S. 126 and 1. P.S. 126 was ranked 129, and 1 was rated as being 203rd.

Goodkind said that in order for these schools to improve, they will need to adapt to the test. Although he looks at scores every year, he has ambivalent feelings about the tests. As a parent, he believes that schools are teaching too much to the test, but he said that for now, he doesn’t see an alternative to the current curriculum.

“It’s the only city I know of, except Japan, that puts so much pressure on fourth graders, and frankly, it’s wrong,” Goodkind said.





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