Back in 2007, New York State’s education department announced that 68 percent of fourth graders and 57 percent of eighth-graders in the state achieved the top two levels on its battery of exam, or equivalent to Proficient and Advanced on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This sounds great, of course, until one realized that only 36 percent of the Empire State’s fourth graders and 33 percent of eighth-grade students scored at Proficient and Advanced levels on the 2007 NAEP. Essentially, New York State overstated by a two-fold the number of kids who were reading proficiently, all because its test proficiency cut score targets (and expectations for children) were far too low. Essentially, New York State was lying to families and other taxpayers about the quality of education being provided to their children, fibbing to teachers and school leaders about the quality of their work, and ultimately, deceiving children about how well they were being prepared for success in the working world, as well about the quality of the professionals charged with serving them. This is one reason why Education Next has rated the Empire State’s proficiency cut scores either a C or D for six years between 2003 and 2009. [It was given a B this year for showing more candor.]
But these days, New York State officials, including Education Commissioner John King, are being honest with families, other taxpayers, and children. The latest example of this candor came yesterday with the release of the latest test score results for Empire State students on the new Common Core-aligned exams. Sure, traditionalists and districts throughout the state will complain that the results show them in an unacceptably abysmal light. But results, along with how King and others dealt with the cut score targets, is at least a good step toward advancing the next generation of reforms needed to help all children in the state succeed.
Certainly there will be shock that only 36.3 percent of fourth-graders and 27.2 percent of eighth-graders scored at the top two levels on the reading portion of the state tests. But the reality is that those numbers closely align with the performance of fourth- and eighth-graders on NAEP two years ago, when 34 percent of fourth graders and 35 percent of eighth graders scored at Proficient and Advanced levels. If anything, the results (along with the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards undertaken by the Empire State) have shown what most people have already surmised by now: That the state’s proficiency targets had long ago overstated levels of student achievement. It isn’t shocking considering that two out of five students attending the State University of New York’s community colleges have to take some kind of remedial coursework in order to master what they should have learned in elementary and secondary schools.
The results are also showing how poorly districts and other school operators are providing high-quality education to poor and minority children. A mere 16.1 percent of black children in grades three through eight read at the top two levels on the Empire State’s reading exam. Considering that a mere 16 percent of black fourth-graders and 18 percent of black eighth-graders in 2011 scored at Proficient and Advanced levels on NAEP, a tougher exam than New York State’s at that time, the current numbers aren’t shocking. Nor is it shocking that just 17.7 percent of Latino children in grades three-through eight, and 21.2 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native peers scored at the top two levels on the exam, those numbers are similar to the performance of fourth and eighth-graders on NAEP two years ago. But it is should still make families indignant about the low quality of teaching and curricula for which they are forced to pay.
The tests also confirm how the unwillingness of big-city districts in the Empire State to overhaul their school operations has dire consequences for poor and minority kids. A mere 8.7 percent of elementary and early-secondary grade students in Syracuse scored at the top two levels of the exam (while one out of every two kids reading at Level 1 or effectively below basic proficiency), while only 11.5 percent of peers in Buffalo scored at top two levels (while one out of ever two kids in third through eighth grades effectively reading below basic proficiency). The state’s suburban and rural districts are doing no better: Just 17.7 percent of children in grades three through eight in urban-suburban districts and 22.7 percent of peers in rural districts scored at the top two levels of the reading portion of the exams.
Only New York City, with 26.4 percent of kids in grades three-through-eight reaching the top two levels on the reading portion of the state’s exams, comes close to the 31.1 percent statewide average. [New York City was also the only one to come close to meeting the Empire State's 31 percent average for all kids in grades three through eight scoring in the top two levels, with 29.6 percent of kids in those grades performing at the top two levels.] This is a credit to the reforms of the traditional district undertaken by outgoing Big Apple Mayor Michael Bloomberg and education czars under his watch including Joel Klein and Dennis Walcott; the results also serve as a reminder of why mayoral control of traditional districts can serve as a powerful tool in spurring reform. Voters in the Big Apple will have to keep this mind over the next few months as they head to the polls to choose Bloomberg’s successor from a motley crew of scandal-tarred pols and pusillanimous beggars for the support of the American Federation of Teachers’ local.
While this year’s exams are formally setting a baseline for performance, it has been clear over the past two decades that far too many of New York State’s big-city districts (and many of their suburban counterparts) are providing abysmal and mediocre teaching and curricula to our children. King and Gov. Andrew Cuomo should use the results to force these districts to either embrace systemic reform as well as expand school choice for kids in these cities. King has already taken that step last month with the move to force Buffalo to allow kids at two of its failing high schools to attend programs outside the district.
The state even deserves credit for shedding light on how young men of all races are being poorly served. A mere 34.9 percent of young white men in grades three through eight scored at the top two levels of reading exams, versus 45.1 percent of their young women peers, while 12.6 percent of young black men in those grades scored at the top two levels versus 19.8 percent of their young women peers. The most-stunning gap was among Asian children, with 45.3 percent of young Asian men in grades three through eight scoring at the top two levels, versus 55.6 percent of their young women peers. One can hope that this data will force reformers and policymakers in the Empire State to focus on the gender-based achievement gaps that are a persistent symptom of the education crisis plaguing both the state and the nation.
The results are hardly good news on their own by any measure. What is good to know is that New York State has stopped deceiving its families and children about the low quality of education throughout the state.
Thanks to the reforms undertaken by the Empire State within the last 13 years, as well as the reform efforts of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg after taking control of the nation’s largest school district, there has been significant progress in the quality of education being provided to our kids. The percentage of black eighth-graders scoring at Proficient and Advanced levels in reading increased by four percentage points between 2003 and 2011, double the two percentage point increase for black eighth-grade peers throughout the rest of the nation as a whole, while the eight percentage point decline in the number of black eighth-graders reading Below Basic outpaced the five percent national decline in that same period.
At the same time, the Empire State’s progress, good as it has been, was not good enough. While the state’s math curricula standards were rated a B by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in its 2010 study, it still had issues because it didn’t deal with whole-number arithmetic in the early grades in an adequate way and failed to address aspects of math such as fractions. The reading standards, were rated a C by Fordham because they lacked clarity and detoured too often into pedagogy, or instructional theories that don’t deal with how children learn. Meanwhile the state’s struggles with providing young black men with high-quality education — a problem exemplified by the failures of New York City on that front — was never fully addressed. Only 37 percent of young black men who were freshmen in the Empire State’s Class of 2010 graduated on time, according to an analysis by the Schott Foundation for Public Education.
But it can be hard to fully understand how far New York State has come — and how bad the conditions of education still remain — when the test score data is inflated. For years, one of King’s predecessor, Richard Mills, was widely criticized for setting test proficiency cut scores that gave false impressions about the quality of instruction and curricula throughout the state. Nor was Mills up front about how those targets were set; in 2009, Mills notoriously refused to answer a question posed by Manhattan Institute scholar Sol Stern about whether he himself had set the targets that year or simply relied on the advice of the collection of teachers, school leaders, and professors usually charged with setting them. Such lack of candor on the state’s part actually made it harder for reform-minded school leaders such as Bloomberg and Klein — as well as for charter schools serving kids often coming into classes illiterate and innumerate — to prove that their successful work in improving student achievement wasn’t just mirages. More importantly, for families who must be the lead decision-makers in education, inflated test score results make it harder for them to fully understand how well or poorly schools serving their kids are doing their jobs, as well as gives them a false sense of security about how well their children are doing.
This began to change in 2010, when King’s immediate predecessor, David Steiner, raised the cut scores, which in turn, led to results that better-reflected reality. But the numbers were still inflated. It took the move by the state that year to ditch the state’s woeful curricula standards with Common Core (which even foes of the standards have admitted are better than those previously in place) as well as embracing new tests aligned with the standards, to fully begin admitting how much more had to be done to help children in the state succeed. By enacting the new standards — and by setting tougher cut scores — teachers, school leaders, and districts outside of New York City are now being forced to set high expectations for all children and elevate their teaching to match. The fact that so many children struggled to answer what should be simple word problems such as “The number of objects described in which situation can be described by 24 ÷ 4? (the answer is “There are 24 marbles that need to be sorted into four equal groups”) shows how far the state — and the nation — has to go in addressing underlying instructional, curricular, and literacy issues. It also reminds families that they must advocate strongly for Parent Trigger laws and the expansion of school choice so they can expand the array of high-quality options for their children. At the same time, by warning for more than a year that test score results would be lower than in the past — and more-reflective of reality — King and other officials showed how important it is for reformers to constantly communicate about the impact of changes that are best for all children in the long run (even when adults would rather avoid immediate pain).
The example set by New York State, in turn, needs to be embraced by other states, including the Empire State’s peers who have also enacted Common Core. This won’t be easy. There’s the opposition to the standards from the motley crew of movement conservatives and hardcore progressive traditionalists who have mobilized over the past two years. There are affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, whose Baby Boomers in the rank-and-file are displeased with the idea that Common Core will reveal their deficiencies in instruction; this is one reason why AFT President Randi Weingarten called for a moratorium on the use of Common Core test results in teacher evaluations (and convinced U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to launch another waiver process that will allow states to temporarily halt such uses). Then there are also many families from middle-class suburban households who still believe that their schools are doing well by their children. The results from the new Common Core-aligned exams will not comfort them one bit. All of this may convince some states to continue the unfortunate penchant in American public education to set cut scores that are too low and too easy, aiding the arguments of suburban districts that all is well when it is not.
At the same time, as I mentioned in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, part of being a reformer involves forcing all to be honest about the myriad issues that have contributed to the abysmal conditions endemic throughout American public education. It is better to force all to honestly acknowledge the problems — even at the expense of political careers and relationships with ideological fellow-travelers outside of education — than to allow millions of children from all backgrounds to have their futures condemned by failing and mediocre schools.
You can’t take the important steps needed to help all of our children get high-quality education if states continue to aid and abet deception. Following New York State’s example is one all other states should do.