State Test Scores Flat, City's Rise After Another Year of Tougher Exams

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Test scores statewide in math and English for elementary and middle school students remained flat while scores in the city increased a few percent points.

About 53 percent of New York's elementary and middle school students passed their state English tests this year and 63 percent passed the math exams — about the same as last year when numbers sank dramatically after the test was made tougher.

In New York City, there was a slight gain in the percentage of students passing this years' tests by about 2 points. Almost 45 percent of students passed the English tests, and 57 percent passed the math exams.

"Despite the fact that this year's tests were harder, I'm happy to say New York City students, teachers and principals are rising to meet that challenge," Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters Monday while pointing to colorful charts showing progress.

State Education Commissioner John King was less cheerful in his assessment.

"Student outcomes have been stubbornly flat over time," he said, noting raw test scores, on average, had also barely moved.

King said the new Regents reform agenda is designed to raise student performance through better tests and better training for teachers and principals. The state is using federal Race to the Top funds to make these changes.

In 2009, before the state raised the cutoff scores needed to pass its exams, 77 percent of students were considered proficient in reading and an even greater percentage were considered proficient in math. But, as in other states, there was a huge discrepancy between results on state and national tests — with the national scores being far lower. This is why the Obama administration has been encouraging the states to adopt higher national standards.

"Teachers have been telling us that they've been taking shortcuts in surveys for more than 20 years," said Dan Koretz, a Harvard education professor who's been studying state exams.

Koretz is now advising New York on how to make its exams more rigorous and less predictable. This year, the state added more multiple choice questions, and required all students in grades 3 through 8 to write an essay (half the grades were previously exempt). The state also stopped releasing test questions for teachers to use in preparing their students.

Teachers and principals said they noticed those changes.

Dr. Stephen Appea, principal of PS-IS 327 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, said "the test was indeed more difficult, more challenging not necessarily in terms of the academic vocabulary but in terms of the complexity of the tasks that were required of the students."

He said his teachers used new technology to prepare their students and engage them in critical thinking. Those efforts apparently paid off, with 38.8 percent of his students in grades 3-8 proficient in English Language Arts, a 10-point gain over last year. But it's still far short of 2009, when 56.5 percent of students at PS-IS 327 were proficient on the easier tests.

As a result of this year's changes, far fewer students throughout the state scored at level 4, the highest level on their English tests. Just 3.5 percent were at level 4 this year compared to 10.2 percent last year.

The test scores also revealed the persistent achievement gap. A little more than a third of black and Hispanic students passed the English tests, compared to more than half of all students in New York State.

On the math exams, 44 percent of black students passed and just over 50 percent of Hispanic students passed. But over 63 percent of all state students passed the math exams, and 73 percent of white students passed.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew praised city teachers on this year's gains.

But, noting the achievement gap, he said the city's department of education "needs to come up soon with an instructional strategy that can keep this progress going, despite the problems we are facing next year like a dramatic rise in class size and the loss of hundreds of valuable programs."