Union, Chancellor Square Off on Eve of Test Score Results

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With New York State poised to publicly release the results of this year's tough new math and English exams on Wednesday, the teachers union and the Bloomberg administration are each laying the groundwork for how to explain what's widely expected to be a huge drop in scores and the fingerpointing has already started.

On Sunday, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said it's "despicable" and "really sad" that the union is "trying to politicize" the results of the new tests for grades 3-8.

Walcott was referring to an email the union sent reporters on Friday saying, "Because scores are widely expected to fall, the occasion will mark another moment in Bloomberg's tenure that reality will intrude on the mayor's self-congratulatory narrative of school success."

The chancellor's team arranged for a conference call with education reporters on Sunday afternoon so that Walcott could personally answer the union's attack. He said the Department of Education has already been warning that the pass rate on this year's tests could drop by as much as 30 percentage points, because they are the first ones aligned with the state's new Common Core learning standards.

"It's an important topic," he said, explaining that teachers have spent the past year adapting to the new standards and preparing for harder tests. By criticizing the administration before the results have even been announced, he said the union was attacking its own staffers who have been involved in helping teachers and students learn the new material.

The percentage of students passing elementary and middle school tests plunged by double digits statewide in 2010 when New York acknowledged its exams had become too easy and raised the scores needed to pass. This year's Common Core tests mark the next step in that process. Kentucky was the first state to begin using Common Core aligned tests and its pass rates fell tremendously last year. State education officials are predicting similar drops in New York. Districts have begun seeing test results and will get the full scores Monday to share with schools, though they are not allowed to publicly release them until Wednesday.

The city's Chief Academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, said he expects the percentage of students deemed proficient could resemble the results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Just about a third of city's 4th graders were proficient on those national reading tests in 2011, compared to about 50 percent on the state exams. The NAEP exams have long been considered harder than state exams.

Many teachers and parents have complained that it was unfair for the state to phase in the harder tests before choosing a new Common Core curriculum to match them. Suransky said that the city did the best that it could in the meantime by providing thousands of training sessions for teachers and by making hundreds of thousands of materials available to them on websites. The city chose curricula in February and schools are now receiving new books.

He also repeated that "no one's being punished because the tests got harder." He said schools will be compared relative to each other, and that this year's results will set a new baseline from which he said scores would rise once teachers and students feel more comfortable with the new material. The English standards are considered to be especially challenging because they emphasize more vocabulary and critical thinking skills at an earlier age in order to ensure students are on track for college and careers.

But United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew said he was only pointing out the Bloomberg administration's heavy reliance on test prep over the past decade and its limitations. "That is not 'politicizing' the issue," he said in a statement. "That is reality."