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Cheating Kids

[Editor’s note: This piece was originally published as an opinion column in the New York Post on Dec. 10.]

National math scores were released this week for 18 cities, including New York City, and we learned that our state tests are a complete sham. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is administered by a federal agency, is considered the gold standard of education testing. The big lesson: Our state test scores are grossly inflated.

For the last several years, state education officials have held an annual press conference to boast about dramatic improvements in scores. But the NAEP scores tell a very different story.

According to state officials, the scores for New York City have soared year after year. From 2003 to 2009, they said, the proportion of fourth-grade students who met the state standard for proficiency leapt from 66.7 percent in 2003 to 84.9 percent in 2009. In eighth grade, where test scores had long been flat, the proportion who reached proficiency soared from 34.4 percent to an astonishing 71.3 percent. These amazing changes seemed too good to be true.

They were. The national scores show that the proportion of fourth-grade students who reached proficiency rose from 21 percent to 35 percent. That is solid, and Chancellor Joel Klein can certainly take pride in that improvement. But it certainly doesn’t support the state’s claim that 84.9 percent are proficient.

The eighth-graders showed modest improvement in the six-year span, from 21 percent proficient to 26 percent. Again, commendable progress, but it is far from the 71.3 percent that the state announced.

As a result of the state’s manipulation of test scores, many students aren’t getting the attention that they need, and school officials are led to believe that programs are working when they’re not. Schools can’t help students who are far behind in math when the state mistakenly says they’re “proficient.”

New York City has a policy of “no social promotion” for students who score only Level 1 (the bottom rank) on the state tests. But the number of students who score that low has been mysteriously shrinking. In 2007, 5,765 (or 8.1 percent) of fourth-grade students were Level 1, but by 2009, only 3,206 (or 4.6 percent) were.

Among eighth-grade students, the number of Level 1 students dropped from 14,099 (or 18.8 percent) in 2007 to only 3,263 (or 4.5 percent) in 2009. City officials attributed the decline to successful programs, but the federal tests again tell a different story.

NAEP found that 21 percent of fourth-grade students — not 4.6 percent — in New York City are “below basic,” which is equivalent to Level 1 on the federal test. Worse, among eighth-grade students, a shocking 40 percent are “below basic,” not the 4.5 percent that the state reported.

Congress intended that the federal tests would serve as an audit for the claims made by states, which are required to take the NAEP tests, and by those districts that volunteered to take them. What we’ve learned from this audit is that the New York state test program is broken. It’s giving us false information about student progress, which leads not only to complacency and false pride, but to failure to acknowledge the actual situation and set a strong course of action.

We also learned from the federal tests that New York City made no progress for the last two years, and there was no narrowing of the achievement gap between black and white students or between Hispanic and white students.

But NAEP shows that over six years, the city made slow and steady gains in both the fourth and eighth grades. There is a lesson here for the city’s Department of Education. If a school made no progress for two straight years, Tweed would give it an F and perhaps close it down. The department should learn from its own experience and recognize that it is unfair to measure progress based on only one or two years of scores.

For now, the challenge facing state education officials is to fix the state testing system. Not only is it broken, not only is it an embarrassment to the state, but the rosy misinformation that it provides is harming children.

Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, is author of the forthcoming “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.”

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