There is a growing consensus over New York State’s standardized test scores. They are so inflated that even the Daily News and New York Post aren’t buying in anymore. These are the mayor’s most unquestioning allies, usually loathe to present data that might undermine the case that Mr. Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein are the only ones capable of saving our schools. Yet even they are now skittish over the data upon which the mayor’s case is built.
It’s about time that it is drummed into the public consciousness that serious questions have been raised about both the Regents subject mastery exams taken by high school students, and the grade 3 through 8 tests required under the federal No Child Left Behind law. These impact all of the programs advanced by the mayor and other “reformers,” skewing results and compromises the billions we are investing in the schools.
This issue recently got some front burner attention when the city released their controversial report cards for the schools, a key element in the data based strategy of Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein.
Since the report cards grades are heavily tied into increased scores on state tests, 87 percent of all schools, including a number of severely troubled ones, found themselves with grades of “A.” These Lake Wobegon-like results have finally drawn attention to the testing issue that had been simmering in the background, happily ignored by the politicos and educrats, eager to take credit for the good news.
This matter will surely be taken up in Albany by the Board of Regents and the State Education Department. There really is no more important item on the agenda — unless the test mess is addressed, there is no hope for any reform to be successful, or for any claims of success to be considered real.
We will never be able to make informed public policy decisions if we base decisions on flawed data. Education is our largest single public expenditure, and basing policy decisions on data that is inflated and unreliable is a disservice to the citizenry at a time when they are shouldering a crushing tax burden in this troubled economy.
But the ultimate victims are the children. One factoid from the debate on the tests that was particularly striking to me is that just 146 out of some 70,000 sixth grade students citywide scored at “Level 1” on the reading test administered this year. This is the very lowest level, an indication that a child is far behind academically.
Surely among a universe of children this large, so many from disadvantaged households, the number of children scoring this poorly should be larger, much larger. Proportions between 10 and 20 percent seem about right, and have hovered around those levels historically.
But after the state requires fewer correct answers and has changed the scale used to interpret the results, we have been officially transported to Lake Wobegon on the Hudson, a place where all the students may not yet be above average, but getting there, and fast – at least on paper.
The importance of the numbers of students at Level 1 is that, in the City of New York, achieving at least a score of Level 2 (still below proficiency) is required in many grades for promotion. This is one of the centerpieces of the mayor’s educational program, the “end” of social promotion.
The State Education Department warns that these tests shouldn’t be used as a promotional yardstick, and this topic is certainly worthy of continued debate. But often a line needs to be drawn to signal the need for intervention designed to help the most troubled students, and this one initially seemed as good as any.
By moving the line, without really moving the true level of achievement, the prescribed intervention becomes meaningless. Ironically, as for the 146 “failing” six graders on this year’s reading test, the mayor recently formally expanded his program “ending” social promotion – to include the sixth grade!
If one can accept that perhaps 10 percent of the sixth-grade population is seriously deficient in reading, a figure that I believe is, if anything, too low, 7,000 children in academic trouble have been wrongly promoted. 7,000 children who should have been going to summer school for remediation did not. 7,000 children will fall further behind, no matter what the test scores tell us.
Teachers and principals have confided to me over the years that even as they celebrate their higher scores (and in some cases their hefty bonuses), they are uneasy. Good educators know their students, and they know when the scores no longer reflect the reality of the true level of achievement. We have long passed that point.
Good teachers know that knowledge and skills must be built upon, and at some point further along the academic road there will be a reckoning. Thus we hear reports, such as those here in New York City, that three quarters of students at community colleges, all with high school diplomas in hand, are still in need of remediation. The majority never graduate.
Nationally there are increasing reports of colleges unable to graduate increasing numbers of their students, failing once they achieve what is the universal goal of K-12 school systems, college admission.
Just what do increased high school graduation rates mean when that diploma is a ticket to nowhere? What do the boasts of politicos about rising test scores along the way mean, when the improvements in the end product, the impact a child’s education has on his or her life, is still so disappointing?
The state probably will make changes in the testing program, perhaps as early as next year, and parents of students will be told that their children, geniuses just last year, are suddenly not making the grade.
Years after the fact, we will acknowledge those children need help, help they should have had years earlier. As any teacher will tell you, as time goes on it becomes harder for students to catch up. And by then the cost of fixing the fruit of the state’s deception will be staggering.