Is New York Children Learning? New Test Scores Admit Defeat

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The New York state education department issued its annual test scores for 3rd- through 8th-graders this morning, and the takeaway is: They blow. The number of students judged proficient in English fell from 77% in 2009 to 53% this year; in math, the percent earning passing grades plunged from 86% to 61%.

The state, however, was quick to note that it had anticipated crappy scores, seeing as it had raised the scores required to pass — "cut scores," in testing lingo — after widespread criticism that New York students had been doing better on state tests but not on national ones. The real upshot, then: New York schools aren't any crappier than ever, it's just that prior reports of improvement were an illusion.

So what does all this mean for city schools? First off, the Bloomberg administration has some fast dancing to do to rejigger its school Progress Reports, which are based on year-to-year improvement on how many kids pass the state tests — meaning if the new scores were taken at face value, huge numbers of city schools would be looking at failing grades.

The city has an out, though, which is while the state determines passing grades for kids, the city sets passing grades for schools — and it can grade on whatever curve it likes. "The Department of Ed in New York City has been hitching itself to these test scores for some time, and it can make adjustments that can accommodate the fact that far fewer students have been judged to be proficient," says Columbia Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, who's studied both the state and city testing regimens. "My guess is they'll find some politically acceptable number of schools to rate as 'excellent' and to get D's and F's." (The city DoE wasn't immediately picking up the phone when the Voice called for comment.)

GothamSchools, meanwhile, points out that scores fell the farthest among low-income students, cratering from 69% proficient to 39%, even as non-disadvantaged kids fell only from 87% to 69%. That could easily be an artifact of the way the scores changed: If a higher proportion of needy kids were close to the passing-grade cutoff (as might be expected if they're scoring lower on average to begin with), more of them would have gotten caught by the state's raising of the bar. Again, the lesson here wouldn't be that poor kids are doing worse, just that they were never doing that well to begin with.

Indeed, for Pallas, the main concern is that now that the test scores have been rationalized, they show we're largely back where we started in terms of actually improving school performance.

"If we were pinning our hopes on the current basket of reforms that the city is relying on, it didn't seem to yield much this year," he says. "The city and state have been kind of coasting, saying, 'Oh, 80% of our kids are on grade level.' Now we know that's not true: In many respects, fewer than half of the students in the city are meeting the standards that predict future success. And that means the city is going to have to come up with a new approach."

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