When are lower student achievement scores a good thing? That seems to be the question thrown about up in New York City this past week, where Big Apple officials have been grappling with the reality that city students’ performance on the state’s math and reading proficiency tests fell after a newer (and harder) exam was put into place.
As always, it is most fun to read the evolution of such stories in the New York Post, which first reported on the plunge, and then editotrialized on the issue twice — first on Thursday praising the new “truth-telling” and then again today, condemning the United Federation of Teachers for jumping on the test score drop to “discredit all education standards.”
It should be no secret that state standards — and the tests that measure those standards — have been a problem for some time. Since the introduction of NCLB, we’ve witnessed states lowering their standards so that they could continue to demonstrate “adequate yearly progress,” regularly reducing the bar so the number of students hitting proficient increased year after year after year. In this educational shell game, it meant reducing the standards again and again to keep up.
The NY Post refers to the problem as “junk tests” but the real issue seems to be the standards behind them. Tests are only as good as what we are expected to measure. Garbage in, garbage out. Did anyone really believe that more than three-quarters of NY students were proficient in reading and math? Of course not. But New York State’s definition of proficient and a common sense definition of the same are quite different. How else do you explain such strong proficiency numbers at a time when half of students require remediation?
One can’t fault the NYC DOE for playing the hands it has been dealt. When taking the old state proficiency exam, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein posted some long-term gains. Year on year, test scores increased. That is progress. Now that they have a new test aligned to new standards, the game starts anew. These scores serve as the year one baseline. Next year, we expect to see gains. And the year after that, more of the same. Rince and repeat.
But those looking to discredit the improvements in NYC based on this one test are going to be sorely mistaken. Just take a look at the other measures around us. On the NAEP exam, the Nation’s Report Card which offers one standard measure for all students across the nation, NYC has seen gains in student achievement (while the rest of New York state has remained flat). And as Eduflack wrote earlier this year, Chancellor Klein has shown real improvement on high school graduation rates. So at a time when the teachers’ unions are calling for multiple measures to evaluate teachers, we are seeing that multiple measures support claims of NYC schools improvement.
Ultimately, while this makes for some lovely rhetorical skirmishes in the city that never sleeps, it doesn’t negate a very simple truth. Over the last decade, NYC schools have come a long way. But they still have a long way to go. At no point do I remember hearing Klein declare mission accomplished. Progress has been made, but there is still much to do, particularly in addressing achievement gap issues in New York. The new test provides a clearer, stronger view of the challenges before NY educators. And the pending adoption and implementation of Common Core standards offers a clearer picture of where one has to go.
Instead of using the latest round of test scores to throw recent reforms out the window, improvements on measures such as NAEP and grad rates should show what is possible, and the growing need to redouble current reform efforts. If anything, these scores demonstrate that more must be done.