A few months ago we did an analysis of the college-readiness numbers of the system’s high-school graduates. That analysis showed that the system’s college-readiness rate – 22.2% — was largely attributable to a small number of high schools. The 35 schools that made up the top 10 percent of high schools contributed nearly half of the graduates ready for college, while hundreds of other high schools had college-ready rates in the single digits.
That same pattern – a “tale of two school systems” – is echoed in the results of the recent state tests on grades 3-8 based on the Common Core standards. In these most recent tests, as in the college-ready statistics, a minority of high-achieving schools helped camouflage much lower results in the majority of schools.
In these new tests based on the much more demanding Common Core standards, only about 26 percent of grade 3-8 students citywide were judged proficient in reading and 30 percent proficient in math, far below the achievement levels on previous state tests. But even this unimpressive level was not reached by the great majority of elementary and middle schools. In these schools student achievement was lower – sometimes much lower — than the citywide average.
One quarter of schools produce half to two-thirds of proficient students
Another way to think about this: About 175 elementary schools – out of a total of 600 – educate at least half of the city’s proficient math and ELA students. Of the city’s roughly 350 middle schools, only 90 account for more than two-thirds of the city’s proficient math and English students.
So a student at one of these schools has – mathematically at least – an excellent chance of passing these tests. But the opposite is also true. Students at the remaining hundreds of schools face much larger challenges, particularly at the roughly 275 schools where only 10 percent of children – or fewer — scored proficient in either reading or math.
Same old same old
The Bloomberg administration has consistently reported the numbers in a way that uses an “average” to de-emphasize the problems at hundreds of low-achieving schools. While the new Common Core tests have changed the definition of proficiency, their results are consistent with the pattern of achievement – and underachievement — for so many New York City schools.
When the city’s 600 elementary schools are ranked into top, second, third and bottom quartiles by their 2013 scores on the Common Core tests, more than 70 percent land in the same quartile they did based on the state tests from 2012.
For the 352 middle schools with two years of math results, 68 percent maintained their rank. Even those that changed ranking generally moved just one quartile: half of those that changed went up one quartile, and 43 percent went down one. Only five schools moved two quartiles up or down.
With this year’s introduction of Common Core-aligned tests, flawed as they were, the city schools enter a new era. The transition will be a game changer that will bring angry reactions by teachers and students, and wider class and racial performance gaps. Student achievement measurement may become discredited for awhile, as an exasperated public throws up its hands in confusion.
Those could be the best things to happen to standardized testing in 10 years.
Achievement plummeted on this first try at new tests. City students scored 20 points lower in ELA and 30 points lower in math, with less than 30 percent of Grade 3-8 students meeting proficiency standards. But the tests set an extremely high bar — probably too high — in what amounted to a premature effort to test students against the new Common Core. Curriculum didn’t start to be available until late in the year and the Dept. of Education didn’t have the leadership required to manage such a dramatic transition.
But there is no going back. The New Common Core tests, which will continue phasing in over the next few years, may get better, especially if current state test-maker Pearson PLC moves out the way. But they will remain harder: they will ask students to do more explaining, analyzing and creating.
And here’s the thing: these are the very skills educators want to teach and have had to forego in favor of test prep. Right now, teachers are out of practice, and so are their students. But these are the skills they want to teach. So they will demand more autonomy, an end to the culture of test prep, more time and resources. As long as the state and city don’t slap ridiculous consequences onto the new scores, students and teachers alike will become less bored and hopefully more engaged.
Harder tests are going to result in widening gaps between better- and less-prepared students. Typically that means racial and wealth gaps, as well as gaps between English proficient and ELL students and between general and special education kids.
These were the gaps that No Child Left Behind set out to eliminate back in 2002. To the extent this succeeded, and it didn’t much, the cost was relentless test prep and/or dumbing down of tests. Now, as the gaps widen on the Common Core tests, parents will be outraged and politicians will distance themselves from the schools. So they should. Bringing poorly prepared students up to standards is the work of brilliant and passionate teaching, which has been forced underground in the NCLB era. Its reemergence can come only if good educators are free to work. They cannot be commandeered by mayors running numbers. A next generation teacher force can only be brought into being by experienced educators who are not ruthlessly tracked by narrow performance monitors.
Accountability and Legacy
The education mayor, the education president. These monikers turned out to be albatrosses around the necks of Michael Bloomberg, George Bush and many others. Their legacy is a culture of measurement, not of learning. Testing has become laden with consequences that the tests themselves were never meant to support, including judgments about schools, teachers, and even “where we are heading as a society.”
One of the best things these new tests could do is force accountability to grow up. The city has overwhelmed us with data that, on close examination, is really the same data points parsed a hundred different ways. What’s more, the numbers appear to lie, or at least, they zing up and down without apparent reason.
Common Core tests could do two things about accountability. The first is to force us to adopt a more rounded assessment of students and schools. The second is to put standardized tests back their rightful, and less overblown, place.
So less than a third of students meet standards. Well, what else do we know? How do students perform on social studies projects, lab work, art and music, sports, leadership activities, group tasks, or community service? What 21st century skills do they have; what ones need to be developed? What are the best models for teaching those skills? What can students tell us about what they do and don’t understand and what helps them learn? And how do we measure those?
There needs to be some opening up — more quantitative data that uses non-numerical measures. We have agreed that more than half of teacher evaluations will be based on observations of classroom performance. Why can’t we assess our students that way?
It would be a relief if tests become more the province of educators. Politicians don’t find scales, cut scores, p values and item analysis inherently sexy. But good measurement requires expert interpretation. If the heat gets turned down under testing, and we all agree it’s complicated, then public attention may return to subjects, to projects, to school activities and to learning.
Of course, there’s another scenario, in which the new tests are simply misused as the old ones were, to pass judgment based on partial evidence, to bash and shame and to claim undeserved legacies. But after a decade of this, teachers and parents, not to mention students, are pretty fed up. Their voices lend hope for a turnaround.