Getting to the Bottom of the Reading Scores

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School districts from New York City to Buffalo found plenty to cheer about when the state released the results of this year's English Language Arts exam. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg once again said the increase showed his administration had put the schools on the right track. Skeptics once again found little evidence that the gains in New York City were really so much more dramatic than the statewide gains.

Let's do the numbers:

Statewide, 77 percent of students made Level 3 or 4 on their English language Arts exam, which is what the state considers meeting or exceeding the standards. That's a nine percentage point increase from 2008. In New York City, almost 69 percent of pupils met the standards, an increase of 11 points from 2008.

Clearly, the gap between the city and state scores is definitely getting smaller. But are the city's scores off the chart, so to speak? And what does that bode for Mayor Bloomberg's effort to persuade the legislature that he should maintain full control over the schools when that 2002 law expires at the end of June?

Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein were in Washington, DC when the test scores came out, meeting with President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Reverand Al Sharpton about the achievement gap in urban America. Mayor Bloomberg is looking for a share of federal "Race to the Top" funds to reward districts that will commit themselves to raising teacher quality, and using assessments and data to increase student achievement.

The ELA scores among black and Hispanic students in New York City each went up by about 10 points in the past year - more than the increase for whites and Asians. Roughly 62 percent of blacks and Hispanics are meeting state standards compared to about 85 percent of whites and Asians.

But again, this mirrored a similar pattern throughout the state. So did gains among special education students, English Language Learners, and 8th grade students who are usually part of that stubborn "middle school slump" bemoaned by educators.

When asked what the scores say about mayoral control of the schools in New York City, State Education Commissioner Richard Mills declined to wade into the debate. However, he noted that scores went up throughout the state in districts whose schools are not controlled by mayors. In fact, the other Big Five cities also posted increases above the statewide average - though Yonkers, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse all started further behind. State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch added that mayoral control didn't hurt the efforts in New York City. She suggested that the extra stability of a mayor running the system might have helped the city gain additional resources from philanthropists, and foundations that have contributed to programs such as small new schools.

The actual raw scores were also confusing. Statewide, the 9 percentage point increase in students meeting the standards was much higher than the actual 4 point gain in test scores. In New York City, the actual raw scores went up by an average of 7 points - again, far behind an 11 percentage point increase in kids meeting standards.

Robert Tobias, former testing guru for the old Board of Education and now the resident testing guru at New York University, suggested all of these gains could have had something to do with a large percentage of students last year who were just under the cutoff point for Level 3. With a little more test prep and good teaching, he said it's possible they could have jumped over that hurdle this year.

Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein believe an intensive focus on data and frequent assessments, to determine which kids are falling behind, made the difference. This was the second year in which teachers and principals were asked to form inquiry teams that could focus on low-performing students. They're using a new computer system called ARIS. Many parents and teachers have complained about what they see as relentless test-prep. And others say the city and state scores have been going up because of increased funding, more pre-K programs, and professional development for teachers.

In all these comparisons, though, the city can point to one dramatic figure. The percentage of students scoring at the lowest level on the ELA exam fell to less than 3 percent. When Mayor Bloomberg took office it was 18 percent; and last year it was 6 percent.

As Bloomberg lobbies Albany now to keep control of the schools, people on all sides of the argument have plenty of data to make their case.

More reporting from Beth Fertig