This year is one of change in the Levittown School District for many reasons. Like all the districts in the state, it is preparing for new testing and Regents standards, but this year the district also has 64 new teachers to adjust to and welcome.
Almost all of these new teachers are replacing ones who retired last year although four or five of the positions are new. These new positions were created to cope with the new graduation requirements. Of the 64 new teachers 24 are in one of the district's two high schools. These teachers are in subjects such as math, science, social studies, and English, as well as in special education. Three teaching assistants have also been hired for the high schools.
The high schools are an important focus this year because this is the first year of the phase-in of the new Regents standards and graduation requirements mandated by the state. By the year 2004 all students must pass five to eight Regents exams in order to graduate from high school. Many people are concerned about these new standards because they are afraid that children who cannot pass these exams will be lost in the shuffle.
Also of concern to many parents, teachers, and administrators is the new tests being required for fourth-graders. At the Levittown School Board meeting held on Oct. 14, many parents expressed a concern about the stress that these tests are placing on the students. Dr. Herman Sirois, superintendent of Levittown Schools explained that many of these tests are not new but whereas they were spread out through several grades in the past, now the state is requiring that they all be taken in fourth grade. Sirois explained that while these tests do not hurt the students, they really are not very beneficial to them. One concern is that with the new tests more time is being spent reviewing for exams rather than covering new material.
Parents of students at Abbey Lane School spoke out at the school board meeting with the additional concern that because class size is so high in the fourth grade this year there would be additional problems preparing the students for the tests. Parents requested that the board do something about the class size so that their children would be better prepared for the new tests. This concern stems from the fact that this year at Abbey Lane all four of the fourth grade classes are at maximum capacity with 29 students. Sirois explained that because of budget guidelines the board was not authorized to hire a new teacher until the number of students reached 30, at which time the class would be split and a new teacher would be hired. Sirois explained, "That is the only way you can budget and staff, otherwise you are left at the mercy of groups of parents coming to you asking for this and someone else asking for that, and before you know it there is no equality throughout the district. Therefore the equality has to come through the budget and at budget planning times." He added that, while it may be desirable to have smaller class sizes, the district has, because of budget restraints, learned to live with slightly higher class sizes than those in surrounding areas. He pointed out that the district's students continue to thrive despite the larger class sizes. He added that research shows that students are not adversely affected by larger classes until you have over 30 students in a class and that you do not have a better learning environment unless you can have a class size of under 20, which, again, because of budget constraints, is not feasible for the district.
Sirois said that he does not feel that the larger classes are hindering the preparations for the new tests. He said that the main concern is that because of the large class sizes the district is already pushing itself to the limits and the tests are just an additional strain which is very frustrating for the administration. Part of the frustration is that these tests are being mandated by the state despite the fact that educators from across the state informed the Board of Regents and the Commissioner of Education that these tests were not the best way to handle things. The tests measure much of the same things that the old tests did, but in a subjective way which Sirois does not feel is the best way to test this knowledge. He said that they used the old tests to identify students who were falling behind in the curriculum and learn which students needed remediation which was beneficial to students but that the new subjective tests may not do this as well. Sirois said that he would like to see the new tests measure other skills that the students need to learn such as research and computer skills. The new tests do not include these subjects.
An additional frustration of the district is the grading process of the tests. Each district is required to send one teacher for every 25 fourth grade students for a day of training on how to grade the tests and then a day of grading the exams. This is a difficulty for a district that has 29 fourth-grade students in every class. The district will have to pull all of their fourth-grade teachers, and then some, out of class for those days and replace them with substitute teachers, which the district will have to pay for out of their own pocket. Sirois also points out that in order to have a fair and reliable grading of these subjective exams people grading the exams should be trained for approximately three weeks rather than for a number of hours.
Sirois stressed that the district is not against higher standards. He stated, "We are very much in favor of higher standards. We've been moving in Levittown, for the past 12 years, to improve and increase the number of students who take Regents exams and get Regents Diplomas. We made dramatic improvements in that area. It is the one-curriculum-fits everybody mentality that we object to." He said that this idea runs contrary to any thinking in education. He added that it is a purely political position that the Board of Regents and the commissioner are taking. He stated that it is not a sound educational practice and it is not backed by any educational research. He added, "It is not thought through very well and it is a lot of window dressing. It would be a little less frustrating if it weren't just politics."
The 64 new teachers in the district enter during this time of change for the schools. Sirois said that with the new teachers comes new life, ideas, and energetic people. He said that on the other hand with the retiring teachers the district loses a number of years of experience. This loss and gain balance each other out, according to Sirois. He added that it will be easier for new teachers to adapt to the new testing and graduation requirements than it would be for teachers who have been around for 30 years and are set in their ways, because their experience has been that not all students are going to get a Regents diploma. He stated, "It will be easier for new teachers to simply accept that as a goal." He believes that these new teachers will help the students adjust to the new standards and will bring new life into the district in a time of change.