NYC Won’t Allow Yeshiva Students To Fail—But It’s OK For Public School Students?

Sep 23, 2022 10:39:49 AM


After not one student attending Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing & Visual Arts passed either their state math or English Language Arts tests in 2015, 2016, or 2017, the Harlem middle school was scheduled for closure in 2018, the second time in that decade the school had landed on a closure list.   

However, as the New York Times reported: The school’s supporters — including nearly the entire political establishment of Harlem, the president of the N.A.A.C.P.’s New York branch and the head of the Harlem Chamber of Commerce — argue that its abysmal test scores are not the whole story.

Protesters gathered to insist they love their school the way it is, it serves their community, and, yes, test scores are not indicative of school quality. As a result of these protests, Wadleigh remains open. As of 2019, the last year when results were available, it is reported to be in the 22nd percentile for math, citywide.

When it comes to dismissing the relevance of test scores, Wadleigh has the support of those who argue that: Teachers always knew the tests lacked validity, and now some progressive Democrats in Congress are joining their oppositionteachers should determine school curriculum, as they know best how to instill confidence in their students. 

This stance also supports the continuing operation of schools like Community Math and Science Prep where 16% of students are deemed to be performing at grade level in math, PS/IS 123, where 11% meet that benchmark, and IS 219 New Venture School with a dismal 7%, not to mention over 100 more schools across all five boroughs.

Standardized Testing Is Racist, Until White Kids Score Low

Opponents of standardized testing note that “since their inception a century ago, standardized tests have been instruments of racism and a biased system.” 

Yet civil rights groups which oppose anti-testing measures point out that “standardized tests are particularly important to the civil rights community because they are the only available, consistent, and objective source of data about disparities in educational outcomes.” 

The results from those tests are “used to advocate for greater resource equity in schools and more fair treatment for students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learners.”

Nonetheless, many opponents still insist that “standardized achievement tests… should not be used to judge educational quality” because they “are not valid as measures of excellence or scholastic aptitude. Schools which over-emphasize standardized tests… are immersing students in modes of thinking that not only trivialize knowledge, but are also largely irrelevant to real-life problem solving… over-reliance on the standardized testing model limits the development of alternate ways of understanding and assessing intelligence.”

But that’s no longer the argument when we’re talking about yeshivas. 

When The New York Times reported that “Of the thousands of boys (in Jewish Orthodox schools) who took the (state) tests and we have results for, 99 percent failed,” the NY Board of Regents passed resolutions to tighten oversight and shut down those yeshivas which didn’t meet state standards within two days!

Why Are State Leaders Showing Political Courage Now?

Like others before them, the affected community protested. 

A mother wrote in The Wall Street Journal: I’m part of the silent but vast majority of parents who are happy with the education my children receive at their Hasidic school. Along with tens of thousands of Jewish New Yorkers, my husband and I chose to send our children to yeshiva not only to learn how to think critically but how to live as upright, productive members of society. 

Isn’t this argument similar to ones made by opponents of standardized testing? Why is it accepted in making decisions about public schools, but didn’t apply to yeshivas?

To continue with the logic of anti-testing arguments, if “standardized tests… are normed based on the knowledge and values of the majority groups, which can create bias against minority groups, including gender, race, community status, and persons with different language backgrounds, socioeconomic status, and culture,” how is this not just as applicable to Orthodox Jewish students? An hasidic boy in Brooklyn has even less access to majority culture than an African-American or Hispanic student who watches television, and surfs the web!

And yet, unlike when it comes to public schools, the Board of Regents wasn’t moved by any of these counterarguments. 

They voted to immediately investigate yeshivas, set new standards for all private schools to meet, and threatened disaccreditation, or even closure, to any school which failes to raise their standardized test scores in a timely manner.

Why are yeshivas being treated better than traditional public schools?

Yes, I said treated better.

When a yeshiva has 1% of students performing at grade level, the government swoops in to look out for the interests of the children who attend them.

When a public school has 7% of students performing at grade level, the government continues to allow business to continue as usual. Yes, there are programs to “turn schools around.” The majority of those efforts fail. And, yes, sometimes low-performing schools do eventually get closed down.

But it’s usually a slow, torturous process, stymied by the reminders that test scores are biased and don’t matter, and as long as a community feels it is being served by the school, it is not the city’s place to judge otherwise.

The Board of Regents didn’t buy those arguments when it came to yeshivas. Why in the world is it buying them when it comes to public schools?

Alina Adams

Alina Adams is a New York City mom of three school-age children and a New York Times best-selling author of soap-opera tie-ins, figure-skating mysteries and romance novels. She is a contributing writer to TODAY Show Parenting, Mommy Poppins, BlogHer, Red Tricycle, Café Mom and Kveller. After going through the New York City school application process with her own children and realizing just how convoluted, Draconian and needlessly complex it was, Alina resolved to help make all parents aware of all their school choices—and how to get them—via her books, “Getting Into NYC Kindergarten” and “Getting Into NYC High-School,” as well as her podcast, “NYC School Secrets: Parents Helping Parents.”

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