Monday, June 30, 2008

High Test Scores, and Criticism, Follow a South Bronx Principal

Note the involvement in the merit pay/bonus program.

High Test Scores, and Criticism, Follow a South Bronx Principal
High Scores, Criticism Follow a Principal

Staff Reporter of the Sun

June 30, 2008
A South Bronx elementary school that adopted the motto "The Best School in the Universe" on the strength of soaring tests scores is being investigated for allegations that teachers helped students cheat on state tests.
Several students who attended P.S. 48 said last week that teachers would examine their answers during official test administration periods and point out mistakes and how to correct them.
"They would give you the answers on the state tests," a graduate of P.S. 48, who is now in seventh grade, said. "You'd say, 'I need help,' and then they'd tell you what the answer was."
The Department of Education is also investigating cheating allegations at a nearby school, M.S. 201, which this year was taken over by P.S. 48's former principal, John Hughes.
Mr. Hughes moved to the middle school after running P.S. 48, to great acclaim. He told the Web site that he oversaw a 30-point jump on a math test in 2004, and that year Chancellor Joel Klein spoke at the school's graduation — reportedly while wearing a "Best School in the Universe" T-shirt.
The test scores subsequently oscillated, but the general upward trend won Mr. Hughes favorable profiles in the New York Times and on PBS, and he has developed a good rapport with a teacher-recruitment nonprofit, Teach For America.
In his first year at M.S. 201, scores have also shot up; the percentage of students passing math tests this year jumped by 17 points, and the percentage passing reading increased by nine points. (Citywide, scores rose by nine points in math and seven points in reading.)
Yet Mr. Hughes has butted heads with many of the teachers at M.S. 201, many of whom have not been invited to return next year when the school is restructured.
Some of those teachers said in interviews that they fear Mr. Hughes is importing a culture of cheating to their school.
In a recent letter to the Department of Education, a group of teachers reported that Mr. Hughes asked several teachers to help students during the state tests.
One teacher, Sandra Ameny, who came to M.S. 201 through Teach For America, said Mr. Hughes asked her to help her students on the math test, but that she refused.
"He asked me to guide my students to the right answers during the test, and I said that's helping them; I'm not supposed to do that. And he said, 'Well, just guide them towards the right answer,'" Ms. Ameny said.
She added: "He basically said during the exam that I should go over close to them, and for example if they mark 'D' and 'D' is not the right answer, tell them, you know, 'That's not the right answer, try something else,' and just keep guiding them until they get the right answer."
Ms. Ameny said that when she refused to follow his instructions, Mr. Hughes retaliated against her, making her working conditions miserable.
She said Teach For America has released her from its regular two-year commitment.
Reached via telephone last week, Mr. Hughes said he had no comment.
The executive director of Teach For America's New York City branch, Jemina Bernard, would not comment on Ms. Ameny's situation, but she said the group is maintaining its relationship with Mr. Hughes.
"Principal Hughes is a strong partner. We continue to work with him. We have several corps members at the school, and we look forward to working with him and our over 300 schools throughout the city to place our incoming corps," Ms. Bernard said.
Across the country, as standardized tests have become more important to schools — determining everything from whether schools close to teachers' pay — cases of cheating have become increasingly apparent. In Texas, a newspaper analysis by the Dallas Morning News last year found that more than 50,000 student test scores showed evidence of cheating.
In New York, the investigations of the South Bronx schools are among at least a handful of their kind. The Department of Education is also investigating a charter school inside its headquarters building after an allegation that an administrator violated rules by taking home state tests and possibly tampering with them.
The allegations do not always hold up on inspection; last year, a city investigator cleared the names of Brooklyn administrators who had been accused of cheating, saying the charges were brought unfairly by a teacher who had received an unsatisfactory rating.
A spokesman for the city teachers union, Ron Davis, said the union has observed other cases similar to those in the South Bronx, with teachers saying their principals are pressuring them to cheat.
"We've seen too many examples of principals pressuring teachers to help students cheat," the union president, Randi Weingarten, said in a statement. "We must allow zero tolerance for this kind of behavior by principals, and we must insist upon immunity for educators who come forward to report it."
Several staff members at M.S. 201 said they have long suspected cheating went on at P.S. 48. The school feeds its graduates into M.S. 201, and they said students from that school often come unprepared — despite having high test scores.
State tests in New York are graded on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being the highest score. Teachers said that while many children would leave P.S. 48 having scored at a level 3 or 4, they would arrive with skills well below grade level.
"These kids didn't know how to write, they didn't know how to add," a math teacher at M.S. 201 who is leaving the school, Elizabeth Cano, said. "How could they be getting level 4?"
Ms. Cano said the discrepancy would be clearest when the teachers gave pre-tests in the first week of school. "They used to all get a level 1," she said.
A sixth-grader at M.S. 201. said that a teacher once looked over his shoulder and said, "Ooh, is that right? Is that the right answer?" encouraging him to erase and try again.
Meanwhile, 11 of 12 P.S. 48 graduates interviewed last week said they were coached during the state tests.
They said that teachers would look over their shoulders and instruct them to try again and again until they got answers right.
"They'd be like, 'Is that the right answer?' — until they make sure it's right," a sixth-grader said.
"When I was at 48, I never went to class, and I still passed the test," a seventh-grader said. "If you go to graduation, you pass."
Higher test scores could pay off for M.S. 201's teachers this year. The school is one of about 200 participating in a trial project to give teachers bonuses if their students perform well on state tests.
The bonuses average $3,000 a teacher.

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