On National Test, New York Declines in Math

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5:06 p.m. | Updated While math scores went up over all on this year's federally administered national test, New York was the only state in the country in which fourth-grade math scores went in the opposite direction and declined.

Average math scores for New York fourth graders fell by three points, a measure considered statistically significant by the National Center for Education Statistics. Eighth grade scores were flat.

By contrast, average fourth- and eighth-grade math scores nationally on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests given last winter each went up by one point since 2009, to their highest level to date. Sam Dillon has a full report on the national picture on nytimes.com.

The Assessment of Educational Progress is also known as the Nation's Report Card. The test is given every two years to a sample of hundreds of thousands of students, in representative samples in every state. It measures what students know and can do on a scale ranging from zero to 500 for math and reading.

Average overall scores for New York's fourth graders were 238 this year, compared with the national average of 240. The state's eighth graders scored 280 on average, compared with the national average of 283.

In a statement, the state's education commissioner, Dr. John B. King Jr., said the numbers are "disappointing and unacceptable":

New York needs change. The Regents have adopted a comprehensive reform agenda, including the new Common Core Standards adopted last January. It's a foundation for a statewide curriculum and new assessments. The goal is college and career readiness for every student and that starts the first day a child walks into a classroom.

The NAEP scores make clear a tough but necessary truth: our students are not where they should be. The new Common Core Learning Standards will help them get there ...

Our children deserve schools that get them college and career ready. Their future, and our state's future, depends on it.

The news was not much brighter for New York's reading scores, which made no progress since the last exams were given in 2009. Nationally, eighth-grade reading scores rose by one point on average, while fourth-grade scores stayed the same. Officials consider that a disappointment compared with the steady annual gains in math.

In the past eight years since all states were required to participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the largest overall gains were in Maryland, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. But New York was among several states that stood still, along with Iowa and West Virginia, according to the National Assessment Governing Board.

Suzanne Libfeld, director of the New York City Mathematics Project and president of the New York State Association of Mathematics Supervisors, said New York's decline in fourth grade scores is "almost like an aberration."

“We went down a little in fourth grade where we have always been ahead across the nation for all the years pretty much,” Ms. Libfeld said. “And that could be once you advance so much it’s hard to maintain.”

Ms. Libfeld said she was pleased that eighth grade maintained its score. She said the middle grades had been a point of focus in the past. Starting in 2005, ninth grade algebra was taught at an eighth grade level to improve scores.

“I’m happy because the scores finally caught up with us in terms of the rigor we have in eighth grade,” Ms. Libfeld said. “That’s a good thing, it’s always been part of the issue here.”

In the National Assessment of Educational Progress, scores correspond to achievement levels. Nationally, about a third of fourth and eighth graders met the cutoff to be assessed as "proficient" in math this year. New York's students performed a little lower than that. But they did slightly better than the average in reading. About 35 percent of New York's fourth and eighth graders performed at or above the proficient level.

Those passing rates are still well behind the rates on New York State's own annual tests. This year, about 53 percent of students in grades three to eight were considered proficient on their state reading tests, and 63 percent were proficient in math.

Merryl Tisch, the chancellor of the state Board of Regents, said the test results reinforce her argument that the state needs a strong teacher evaluation process.

“We cannot be diddling around with courts and lawyers while children and teachers in this state are going hungry for an evaluation,” Ms. Tisch said. “We need to get to a place in New York State where curriculum and instruction drive assets, and not the assets that drive the curriculum and instruction.”

But the president of the teachers union, Michael Mulgrew, said the lowered scores are the result of current policies and budget cuts.

"We need to get back to a well-rounded education and that’s what NAEP really measures," he said Tuesday, speaking a news conference to release a United Federation of Teachers survey of conditions in schools. "And as long as we keep focusing -- and more and more of our education is just about test prep -- you’re going to see results like that.”

“Test prep plus cuts, cuts, and cuts, that’s a problem,” he said.

Ms. Libfeld also blamed budget cuts and lack of money for teacher training.

“It's an issue all over that we need to focus on,” she said. “Money needs to be focused on professional development for teachers and that’s the bottom line.”

But Ms. Libfeld found one point of progess in the NAEP results that put New York ahead of the other states: narrowing the achievement gap for lower income students.

“We are doing better than anyone else,” Ms. Libfeld said. “I think that is a tribute to the professionals across the state in terms of their work with students.”