State Tests Show NYC Made Bigger Gains in Reading than Average

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While students across New York State made gains on this year's math tests in grades 3 through 8, scores remained stagnant in the English Language Arts. The results in New York City were slightly better, with students making progress in both categories and narrowing the gap between city and state scores.

The percentage of New York students considered proficient in math rose by 4.6 percentage points to 35.8 percent across all grade levels. The number considered proficient in English barely budged, moving up by one tenth of a percentage point to 31.4 percent on average this year.

"We saw significant statewide progress in mathematics," said Education Commissioner John King, noting that it's often harder to improve scores in reading comprehension because it requires more attention to vocabulary and a student's background knowledge. 

New York City students showed gains of 2 percentage points across all grade levels on the English tests. On average, 29.4 percent of city students were proficient on their English, tests compared to 27.4 percent last year. This narrowed the gap between New York City and the rest of the state.

The city made similar progress in math. The percentage of students considered proficient rose by more than 4 points to 34.5 percent on average compared to 35.8 percent for the rest of the state.

The 2013-14 school year was the second year in which New York education officials gave more challenging tests aligned with Common Core learning standards. When the tests were first introduced last year, the percentage of students deemed proficient plunged to just 31 percent of students statewide in both math and reading.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina said the slightly higher scores reflected progress in tailoring classroom instruction to the tougher learning standards. 

"The Department has redoubled its efforts, and with this much stronger focus on professional development and instructional practice, student outcomes will continue to improve, leading to greater college and career readiness," she said. 

Both last year and this year, teachers complained that the English tests were especially difficult. Regents Chancellor Meryl Tish said the results show schools are gradually getting used to the more challenging new learning standards.

“It is a story of modest but real progress, we believe, as teachers and students across the state start to adapt to the Common Core,” she said. But she acknowledged the "temperature" around the new standards and their tests, adding that she hoped the rhetoric and the politics would dissipate now that tests will no longer be used as the main criteria for promoting students to the next grade.

The state said students demonstrated progress in math across all groups, although affluent districts continued to do better overall. The so-called achievement gap remained: blacks and Hispanics both posted gains in math and English, but whites and Asians posted even bigger increases in some of the tests.

Blacks and Hispanics in New York City showed bigger increases in English than they did statewide, although less than 19 percent overall were still considered proficient this year, according to state figures.

The charter school sector made even bigger gains on average in math and English across the state than district schools. In New York City, 42.5 percent of charter school students were proficient in math compared to 34.2 percent last year, an increase of more than 8 points. A total of 26.9 percent of charter school students were proficient in English this year, reflecting a gain of 1.7 points compared to 2 points overall in New York City.

Girls had higher scores on average than boys. Progress was smaller among two of the more vulnerable groups. Among English Language Learners, just 11 percent of students were proficient in math compared to 7.5 percent last year. In English, only 2.6 percent were proficient compared to 1.7 percent last year.

Among special education students, 8.8 percent were proficient in math compared to 7.2 percent last year, and 5.2 percent were proficient in English versus 4.7 percent last year.

"There is more work that we have to do in the state and country to make sure students with disabilities make the progress we know that they can," said King. He said he's exploring a federal waiver for students with the most severe disabilities that would allow them to take tests that correspond better with their instructional level instead of their grade level.

New York is among the vanguard of states that have given Common Core tests for more than a year. Kentucky was the first to start in 2012, and its proficiency rates also only rose a little bit in its second year. Commissioner King acknowledged "there is much more work to do" in New York but he said he always expected "incremental" progress as students and teachers adjust to the standards with more professional development.

This year's data also didn't include more than 50,000 eighth graders because they took Regents exams instead of the regular math tests. The commissioner speculated that the absence of these high achieving students brought down the eighth grade scores overall.

The state recently released about half of the questions that appeared on this year's tests.