Report: Recent School Gains are Overblown

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A new report claims academic gains over the last decade in the New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C. public schools were largely exaggerated by proponents of the current wave of school reforms.

The report comes from the group Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, an offshoot of the Economic Policy Institute, which has been critical of many of the reforms favored by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who previously ran the Chicago school district, and groups such as Students First, headed by former D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

The approaches under scrutiny, which the report calls "market-oriented education reforms," include charter schools, closing under-performing schools and relying on test scores to measure the performance of schools and teachers.

The report's authors could be accused of cherry picking, because they relied on many academic studies and newspaper reports that criticized the progress of these three large urban districts, but they picked a lot of cherries.

Notably, with respect to New York City schools, they claim:

-Mayor Michael Bloomberg overstated claims to have reduced the achievement gap between whites and Asians and blacks and Latinos on state exams. The report notes that scores on state tests, averaged across fourth and eighth grades in reading and math, show the achievement gap stagnated, remaining at about 26 percentage points in 2003 and in 2011.

-The Bloomberg administration's first wave of 100 small new schools was successful, but the city did not replicate many of the elements that contributed to their success in subsequent new schools. The report cites the presence of community partnerships that helped at-risk pupils in the first batch of small schools.

-The city's attempt at measuring which teachers are more successful than others by relying on student test scores was "problematic." After the city released value-added scores for thousands of teachers, they were found to be "wildly inaccurate."

-Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the three urban districts were not as impressive as those of other large urban districts. And the achievement gap remained. New York City ranked ninth out of 10 urban districts in terms of average gains.

But the achievement gap between black and white students in New York City on the national eighth-grade reading test did shrink from 28 points in 2005 to a 23 point gap in 2011. And by 2011, black students in New York City were performing three points better than their counterparts in other urban districts on the eighth-grade reading test.

New York City's black students also performed better on the national tests than black students in Washington and Chicago in both math and reading.

The city's Department of Education shrugged off the new report. It released the following statement:

“Our strategy is working – parents see it, teachers say it, and data show it. Graduation rates are at an all-time high, and on campuses where improvement was once thought impossible, we’re seeing extraordinary gains. Never before in New York City history have families had access to so many great schools."

The D.O.E. also pointed to a recent study by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools which affirms its claims that high school graduation rates have improved because of the development of new schools.