Jewish Test Scores Seen As ëWake-Up Callí

Jewish Test Scores Seen As ëWake-Up Callí

Associate Editor

In a development that has Jewish educators looking inward, more than half of all fourth-graders in New York City area Jewish schools failed to meet state standards for reading and writing, according to statistics on private schools released last week.The passing rate of 48.6 percent for Jewish schools was slightly higher than the 41 percent for Catholic schools. The local yeshiva rate was only six-tenths of a point higher than the statewide rate for public schools.ìThis is a wake-up call for some of our schools,î said Rabbi Martin Schloss, director of school services for the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York.ìThere were no surprises, Iíll be honest with you,î Rabbi Schloss said. ìThe schools that have made a major investment in general studies are the schools that did well. Others may have more of a motivation to improve.ìIf the BJE has a position, this is it: Letís dig in and roll up our sleeves,î he said, adding that he welcomed the tests. ìSchools should want to know, to have an independent assessment of where we are.îThe statewide fourth-grade test offers the first statistical glimpse at the academic success rate of private schools.Here in New York City, according to the BJE, non-affiliated private schools passed the January test at the rate of 65.1; Jewish schools, 48.6 percent; religious schools, other than Jewish or Catholic, 43.7; Catholic schools, 41.0; and public schools, 32.7.But in many areas, the public schools dealt a body blow to advocates of school vouchers who maintain that private schools are by definition better schools: In School District 26 in Queens, for instance, public school students outpaced the local yeshiva, Har Torah, by 10 percentage points.Additionally, six public schools in the five boroughs had a passing rate of 87 percent or more. By contrast, in the expanded nine-county metropolitan area, only three Jewish schools reached 80 percent: the Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy in the Bronx, 94 percent; Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School in Rockland County, 80 percent; and the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan, 80 percent.By comparison, reputable schools such as Ramaz and Yeshivah of Flatbush scored a passing percentage of 69 and 73 percent, respectively. Trinity, an Episcopalian private school in Manhattan, had a passing rate of 98 percent.SARís success placed it fourth highest of all New York City private schools. However, three Brooklyn yeshivas ó Imrei Yosef Spinka, Lubavitcher School Chabad and Ahi Ezer ó had passing rates that matched the worst of the public schools, and none of the 19 Spinka students passed at all.The test scores fell into four performance levels: Level l, academic deficiency; Level 2, substandard, needing help; Level 3, meeting state standards; and Level 4, exceeding state standards. Students in Level 4 show superior knowledge in each area tested. Those areas included reading comprehension, listening and taking notes and formulating an essay.Chaim Lauer, executive director of the BJE, said ìit would be insensitive to draw gross conclusions from comparisons and statistics. ìNot all schools are dealing with the same populations. Some of our schools are reaching out to kids who are learning challenged, or from circumstances that are more difficult,î he said. ìThen the test scores come in and it creates a bad dynamic, ëOh, thatís a bad school, I wonít send my kids there.íìMaybe the school is doing very well with the population it has chosen to serve,î he continued. ìOur kids cover a wide continuum: Russian, Iranian, Israeli, chasidic, for whom English is not their first language, even if they are American-born.îThe scores were not intended to be publicized but newspapers and parents filed Freedom of Information Act requests that resulted in the scores being posted on the New York State Department of Education web site.The BJE objected to the posting of the scores. (Local schools, according to the state, must advise parents of their childrenís performance.) Marvin Schick, a veteran observer of Jewish education and president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph schools, said, ìYou canít take the position that you can embarrass public schools but you canít embarrass private schools. Yes, public schools get public funds, but Jewish schools get communal funds and are of communal interest.îThe BJEís Rabbi Schloss stressed that individual schoolsí pupil makeup must be taken into account before rushing to judgment about any low scores. ìFor example, [Yeshiva] Ahi Ezer reaches out into the Sephardi community and tries to be the school of last resort,î he said. ìThey reach out to kids in trouble; they do everything possible to give kids a life; that doesnít show up in the scores.îSome criticized the test for being too difficult.ìThere seems to be some consensus that Level 4 was just unreasonably hard,î said Schick. ìA lot of students in Jewish schools seem not to have been prepared for this exam, and this is across the board. I think in a number of Jewish schools, the results will be much different a year or two from now. Nothing is wrong with having a tough exam, as long as itís calibrated to what one can reasonably expect of students in a particular grade. That may not have been the case here. Ö Whatís the point in having all these kids think theyíre failures?îRabbi Joel Cohen, principal of the high-scoring SAR, rejected the argument that some Jewish day schools do better because of an exclusive student body. He said that SAR is a community school, like many day schools, where ìWe try our best to keep children. We donít willy-nilly throw kids out because of low IQs or low scores.îRabbi Cohen added, ìObviously, weíre extremely proud but hardly surprised,î at SARís success. The school, after all, was recognized in 1993 with the prestigious Blue Ribbon Award for excellence from the U.S. Department of Education. ìWeíve always been extremely confident in our methodology, that in the very unique way that we deliver education prepares our children not just to memorize but to think and to analyze.îMost Jewish schools, though, have a big job ahead, said observers.ìIíll tell you what will really tick me off: Next yearís scores,î said Rabbi Schloss. ìIf next yearís scores show no change, then Iíd say we have a real serious problem.î

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