Streams

Modest Rise in City Test Scores

Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - 01:18 PM

6:41 p.m. | Updated For a second consecutive year, city students achieved slight gains on elementary and middle school statewide tests that were made more difficult two years ago after state officials deemed them too easy to pass, officials said on Tuesday.

The scores posted by about 440,000 students in third through eighth grade, who took the tests in April, showed that 60 percent passed the statewide math tests, compared with 57 percent last year.

But fewer students showed proficiency on the English exams, though the results improved from last year: 47 percent of students achieved proficiency compared with 44 percent last year, according to the state Education Department.

State and city results can be found on the state Web site here. SchoolBook will be updating the data on its individual school pages, but not immediately.

The release of the numbers came earlier in summer than in recent years, and further from the school year’s start. State and city officials reacted to the numbers with muted enthusiasm.

In a news release, Merryl H. Tisch, the Board of Regents chancellor, said: "There is some positive momentum in these numbers. But too many of our students, especially students of color, English language learners and special education students, are currently not on a course for college and career readiness."

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who had scheduled a 3 p.m. news conference at Education Department headquarters with Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott, said the gains were the result of high expectations.

“The progress we see this year doesn’t give us a reason to rest -- it gives us a reason to strive for even greater gains," Mr. Bloomberg said in a news release. "There’s still much more work to do, but there’s no question our students are headed in the right direction.”

Mr. Walcott said the emphasis would continue to be on college readiness.

"We support the state’s commitment to raise standards for curriculum and graduation, and to increase the rigor of next year’s tests," Mr. Walcott said in a joint statement with Mr. Bloomberg. "I know that our students and teachers are ready to take on this challenge.”

Continuing a trend from last year, this year’s numbers are a stark falloff from the high achievements recorded in 2009, when the Bloomberg administration trumpeted proficiency levels approaching 100 percent as proof that its ambitious education reforms were bearing fruit.

Three years ago, 82 percent of students were proficient in math and 69 percent in English, and Mayor Bloomberg touted those scores as he ran for re-election to a third term.

State education officials, however, deemed such seemingly remarkable outcomes misleading, and when tougher standards were imposed, city students’ test scores plunged.

On a statewide level, another trend continued this year: The city’s elementary- and middle-school pupils posted worse scores than their counterparts across New York, though the gains made locally were slightly greater than those made statewide.

In English, 55 percent of students in third through eighth grade across the state passed the statewide tests, compared with 53 percent last year. Students across the state posted a modest gain in math as well, with 65 percent of students passing, up from 63 percent a year ago, according to the state data.

The achievement gap between white students and black and Hispanic students narrowed slightly statewide, but the picture is not as clear in New York City.

The United Federation of Teachers president, Michael Mulgrew, released a statement crediting any gains to students and teachers. "The good news: this modest increase in scores -- particularly in the middle schools -- is a tribute to the students and teachers who worked hard last year. The bad news: the achievement gap in reading is not closing."

In many ways, the test-taking landscape in New York is a sum of moving parts.

This year’s English language arts and math exams were the first ones produced by Pearson, a national test publisher, under a five-year, $32 million contract with New York.

But the tests suffered a black eye, just after they were given, over a question involving a talking hare and a pineapple that critics called unusually confusing and that state officials were forced to eliminate as a question that counted as part of the scoring system.

Later, the state threw out questions on two math tests because of errors in the questions or answers, and warned about problems with a third question.

Even before those embarrassments, the process of administering the standardized tests was accompanied by angst this year because of how the test results will be used.

Going forward, once the city reaches an agreement with union leaders on a new teacher evaluation system, the test results will be part of a formula for evaluating teachers. By mid-August, data for individual fourth through eighth grade math and English teachers will be available, showing how their students scored last year compared with this year. But it is questionable if parents of New York City students will have access to the information by September, or even in the following academic year, officials said.

As for their own children's scores, parents will be able to see their elementary or middle-school child's test results starting the week of July 30, through the Aris Parent Link, city education officials said.

In New York City, the test results also are part of the criteria used to assign grades to schools.

Some principals and school leaders are adamantly opposed to such emphasis on standardized testing, saying it has led to a numbers-driven academic culture.

And if the stakes are high for schools and educators, the tests themselves represent a bit of a high-stakes gambit for individual students.

On English tests that are intended to assess standards for reading, listening and writing, for instance, students must tackle about a dozen passages and between 53 and 57 multiple-choice questions, seven short-response questions and two extended-response ones.

But there are also several “field questions” laced through the exam, which do not count toward a final score. Other questions are thrown out. The result is that the number of questions that count toward a student’s grade is fewer than what any individual student faces.

In math, students in grades three through eight face between 65 and 71 questions, in various disciplines, over three days. Again, the questions that go toward a student’s score are fewer than any student answers.

If the testing and results have been dizzying over the last couple of years, next spring will bring deeper levels of change -- and possibly another wave of lower marks as students and educators adjust to new systems.

That is because the state is moving quickly to put in place new curriculum standards, called Common Core, which stress more critical thinking to help prepare students for college and careers. The state's math and English exams, therefore, will for the first time be testing students on elements of the Common Core.

Students taking the English exams next year, for instance, will be asked to analyze and compare passages, rather than summarize them. In math, fractions, rather than probability or statistics, will be stressed.

“I would not be surprised if the test scores next year would drop, because it will be a whole new test based on much higher standards,” said one state education official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “The Common Core is a much more rigorous set of standards.”

Aaron Pallas, professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, who is an expert on city schools data, also predicted there may be a drop in scores next year.

"It's almost always the case when there's a fundamental change in a test format that scores go down," Dr. Pallas said. "So there's going to be discontinuity. That's one reason why it's hard to make judgments from one year to the next when there's several moving pieces."

He added: "It will take some time and next year will be a new baseline from which we can look forward to see how things are happening over the next three or four years."

Norman Fruchter, senior scholar with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, also noted concerns about next year's test results.

"I don't think there's any way to know what influence the new Pearson-prepared [tests] had on these scores, or even how reliable the results are, given all the problems with the tests this year," he said. Referring to Chancellor Tisch and state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., he said, "What's clear to me from their comments is that both Tisch and King are edgy about next year's test results possibly being lower than this year's."

Beth Fertig and Yasmeen Khan contributed reporting.

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