Tuesday, June 26, 2001

The day of reckoning for fifth-graders at Cook Elementary School came quietly yesterday – with a telephone call home from Principal Pam Pelc.

Nine children at Cook failed the first two rounds of reading tests this year and went on to summer school and the final round of testing this past Friday.
And now it was up to Pelc to decide whether children who failed this final round would repeat the fifth grade or move on to middle school.

This is the first year of the state’s Gateway program, which requires fifth-graders to pass reading and math tests to get promoted to middle school.

Pelc started the morning with a class roster and folders for nine children. Four cases were clear-cut. The scores were close enough to passing to qualify for an automatic waiver. Pelc likes that. She believes in testing, but she knows too that scoring is a matter of statistics and statistics can lie.

Hoping to promote

That left five. The first was an easy call too – a girl who showed enough improvement from last year to qualify for an automatic state waiver. She would get promoted.

Pelc reviewed remaining folders, looking for evidence she could use to make a case for promotion to an appeals committee that will meet next month.

She looked for passing math scores. Last year’s writing tests. Report cards and teacher comments. And she paid careful attention to any records that dealt with a learning disability. “Are we going to punish every exceptional child because they can’t meet the grade-level standard?” she asked.

Critics will say that the state’s tough standards are all for show, and that the exceptions Pelc made make standards meaningless. The state certainly didn’t help its case for accountability this year when it lowered the bar for passing the math portion of the year-end test all the way down to 25 percent.

Despite these flaws, Pelc says that the accountability program has focused her teachers on the basics. It’s gotten her school extra money for tutoring. And that’s been good for her students. “We don’t spend a lot of time preparing for PTA programs. We don’t go on a bundle of field trips,” Pelc said. “But to me it’s more critical that children learn to read and write and do math.”

Extra money, teachers

By any measure Cook is a poor school. Most of its students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. In school lingo that makes it an “equity plus school.” Translated, that means the school gets extra money for extra teachers.

At the beginning of the year, only nine out of 34 fifth-graders had scored well enough on the fourth-grade year-end tests to be confident of passing the fifth-grade test. The rest needed extra help. And they got it with after-school tutoring. When Pelc looks at her class roster now, she sees lots of little miracles. On the first round of testing, 20 children passed. Four more passed on the second try. And now after the third round five more did well enough to get promoted automatically.

One boy’s mother asked to have him held back. She didn’t think he was ready for middle school. Pelc agreed. By the end of the morning Pelc decided to appeal three cases. There was only one child whom she felt needed another year of fifth grade.

“So unless the parent wants to appeal, he will be retained,” she said, frowning. “This child is weak in reading, in math and writing. To me it’s a child like this that the Gateway is all about. He’s not showing he’s prepared to go to middle school.

“I feel kind of badly. You hate to see a child retained. But you have to do what’s right.”