City Council Gives Bloomberg's Education Department Low Marks

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City Council members gave low marks to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Education Department for this year's drop in test scores.

At a City Council Education Committee hearing, members tangled with officials from the Department of Education. Queens Democrat Mark Weprin blamed the city for relying too heavily on test scores, saying he sees students spending too much time on test preparation and questioned Deputy Chancellor Shael Suransky over whether students were really learning.

"There is now a focus on trying to make sure the kids do as well as possible on that test and not necessarily learn the information to succeed in life," Weprin says.

But Suransky said he didn't think that was fair.

"If there are schools that are going to a shortcut like test prep, I would say that is a challenge we need to work on together," Suransky says. "But that is not actually the norm, we are actually seeing in most of our schools."

He noted that educators visit 5,000 classes annually and give schools quality reviews, which are all posted on the Department of Education's website. Suransky also says the city is developing higher standards that emphasize more writing. Math and literacy scores fell across New York this year when the state made the tests tougher to pass. In New York City, the percentage of students passing the English Language Arts exam fell from 68 percent in 2009 to just 42 percent this year. Those passing the math exam fell from 83 percent last year to 54 percent this year.

Suransky and Josh Thomases, the Deputy Chief Schools Officer for academics, showed the council members charts explaning how those numbers were misleading. They say the scores wouldn't have moved much at all if the state hadn't made the tests harder to pass this year by raising the cutoff score needed to be labeled proficient. They noted that average scores were actually about the same this year.

But council members weren't impressed. Brooklyn Democrat Charles Barron told the educators "you failed!"

Brooklyn Democrat David Greenfield compared parental anguish over the lower scores with a New Yorker who finds out the cost of a slice of pizza just jumped from $2 to $3. He also asked if the education officials could have prepared their schools better for the change in test scores.

Deputy Chancellor Suransky says that while teachers and principals were trained in the higher standards, ultimately the issue was beyond the city's control because the state didn't actually change its scoring system until the summer -- long after students had taken the exams.

A new coalition of parents and education advocates called Save Our Schools has called on the city to stop using test scores this year to measure schools and teachers. But the city says it's standing by its accountability system. Later this week, schools will get their Progress Reports with A-F letter grades for the 2009-2010 academic year.