In mid-October, our school received a phone call from a nervous woman looking for a school to enroll two children who were displaced by Hurricane Maria. The young children traveled from storm-torn Dominica and were staying with family in Canarsie, Brooklyn. Without hesitation, my staff advised her to come to our building and enroll the two children.
Here’s what my staff didn’t ask: Their reading levels.
We never do. Nor do we turn away children who want to transfer to our school in the third or fourth grade, years when they sit for standardized reading and math exams in New York. Many charter schools are accused of this practice, the thought being that it’s too risky to enroll a student who isn’t at grade level because they are likely to perform poorly on standardized tests.
And those tests mean a lot. Unlike traditional schools, charter schools in New York must get their charter renewed every five years. That means the state education department has to decide if a charter school stays open and standardized test scores play an important role in this decision.
It’s understandable why many schools teach to the test. Educators are forced to weigh whether to teach to the child’s ability, with little focus on traditional test prep or focus almost exclusively on test preparation to hopefully insure strong enough test results to keep the school afloat
When The New American Academy Charter School opened in 2013, our team wanted to provide a holistic education to students. We didn’t want to be a test prep factory because if you have children that do well academically but aren’t good citizens, you have half a child. Our curriculum is rich with science and social studies projects, demands accountability from students and emphasizes the importance of kindness. Our instruction is rigorous but it’s not cookie cutter.
Like many charter schools, we get many new teachers who have an abundance of enthusiasm but little classroom experience. So professional development is a huge part of our program. New American brings in experts from The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University to work with the teachers on the best way to teach reading and writing. Investing in our teachers’ education is crucial to improving our children’s learning. We are training teachers for the long haul in education and understand that handing them a strict curriculum with a heavy emphasis on drilling children will burn them out and stunt their professional growth.
Our school serves students with a wide variety of needs. Make no mistake, we see progress in their learning but that progress isn’t easily measured on a standardized test. Many of our children are special education students. Sometimes our students have struggled in other schools and turn to us for a second chance.
We never turn them away. We want to be a school for all the students of our community, including students who have been unsuccessful in other schools because we know we can help them. Still, there is a price to this philosophy. Our test scores lag behind the city average.
Days after those two beautiful students from Dominica started at The New American Academy Charter School, New York policymakers announced that they will consider looking at more than just test scores and graduation rates when examining charter school renewals. Now they’re proposing to examine other performance measures, like attendance, enrollment and student surveys.
This is the right direction. Relying too heavily on test scores to determine a school’s success is shortsighted and encourages schools to push out poor performing students.
Benchmarks are important and all children should have targets they work towards regardless of ability, but those targets must be realistic. Progress is the goal, not perfection. That’s what I expect for all my students, including my two newest from Dominica.
Lisa Parquette Silva is principal of The New American Academy Charter School, 9301 Avenue B, which is between Canarsie, Brownsville and East Flatbush.