New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new chancellor, Carmen Fariña, has gone on record saying that she would prefer retirement to leading the nation’s largest traditional district. But she has accepted responsibility for running the institution that, along with the criminal justice system and the economic system, one of the Big Apple’s three pillars of inequality. And she has a lot to do.

wpid10020-wpid-this_is_dropout_nation_logo2There isn’t much debate to be had about how de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, and his chancellors, improved achievement for the city’s fourth-graders. Graduation rates have also improved. But the real measure of district and school success lies in how well children are doing by eighth-grade. This is because by then, districts should be provided their students the preparation they need for success in high school, and ultimately, in college and career; eighth-graders reading at or above grade level will be able to do well once they graduate from high school four years later. Eighth grade achievement also matters because the teaching, curricula, and academic services districts provide can (and should) have mitigated any effects that come from as a result of families and socioeconomic background. Children who graduate from high school reading below grade level aren’t likely to succeed after leaving school.

So how well is New York City doing with its eighth-graders, especially for its black and Latino students? Based on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal exam of student achievement, not well.

Three-quarters of the Big Apple’s eighth-graders read at and below Basic levels of proficiency in 2013. This means that just 25 percent of Big Apple eighth graders read at Proficient and Advanced levels, the key levels of grade level success. Between 2003 and 2013, the gap between the city’s performance and that of the national average increased by two points (from eight percentage points to 10).

Even worse, 80 percent of New York City poorest eighth-graders read at and below Basic levels in 2013. Only one out of every five impoverished eighth-graders read at Proficient and Advanced levels. Between 2003 and 2013, the Big Apple’s rate of progress for its poorest eighth graders fell behind that of the nation as a whole.

Nearly 90 percent of young black men in eighth grade attending New York City’s schools are reading at or below Basic levels of proficiency; in short, just 10 percent of young black men are reading at or above grade level. This is a situation that has not significantly improved within the past decade.

As for young Latino eighth-graders? In 2013, just 18 percent of Latino students read at proficient and advanced levels – three percentage points lower than the national average – while the remaining 82 percent read at or below Basic levels. Even worse, the one percentage point improvement in the percentage of Latinos reading at or above grade level between 2003 and 2013 is worse than the seven percentage point improvement nationwide within the last decade.

It isn’t all bad news. In 2013, 18 percent of black eighth-graders of both genders read at Proficient and Advanced levels. This is a five percentage point improvement over 2003, and better than the four percentage point improvement (from 12 percent to 16 percent) nationwide. But the city still hasn’t improved college and career success for Asian and white non-Latino eighth-graders, who often come from more economically-prosperous households.

Just 44 percent of New York City’s Asian eighth-graders read at Proficient and Advanced levels in 2013, six percentage points lower than the 50 percent rate for their peers nationwide. The percentage of Big Apple Asian eighth-graders increased by 10 percentage points between 2003 and 2013, a lower level of improvement than the 12 percentage point improvement nationwide.

Meanwhile 44 percent of white eighth-graders were reading at or above grade level in 2013, matching the national average. But a decade ago, 42 percent of white eighth-graders were reading at Proficient and Advanced levels, three percentage points greater than the 39 percent national average. The city’s two percentage point improvement was less than half the five percentage point improvement nationwide.

The challenges facing the new Chancellor are clear enough. Not enough of New York City’s children are prepared for success in college and career. The city no longer has time for happy talk about reform. We must focus our resources and energies to improve educational outcomes for all students – or else the Big Apple will remain a tale of two cities for another generation.