Log in  |  Search

Lessons from the 2010 State Tests

It’s true, in a sense, that all that happened Wednesday was the state reported test scores using a higher cut-score. It was just like they’d moved the goalpost further down the field, one Buffalo educator (and apparent football fan) explained. More kids failed because they graded the tests harder.

But a lot more happened than that.

As State Education Commissioner David Steiner explained at the state’s press conference, the state tests have not simply become too easy. They have become bad tests.

They have been assessing only a very narrow band of state standards and virtually ignoring the rest of the state curriculum. They have repeated questions from year to year, making it easy to game the tests. And they do not reflect what students need to succeed in college and careers.

That is going to change. Over the next three years, the  tests will become longer. They will test more material, have more open-ended questions and require more writing. They will aim to assess not whether students learned “test-taking tricks,” in Steiner’s words, but whether they can apply knowledge and explain their answers. By 2014-15 the goal is that our state tests will be able to tell students honestly if they are on track to succeed in college and beyond.

Revelations by Subgroup

Surprisingly, the city’s education leadership conveyed little of these developments. Mayor Bloomberg told reporters at the city’s press conference later in the day, “Nothing has changed. You’re writing a story about a change in definition.”

As far as he was concerned, they’d just moved the goalpost.

But the mayor was overlooking crucial signals from the tests. For one, the black-white performance gap doubled in math and grew by 50 percent in ELA. It wasn’t just that everyone went down the same. Many higher-needs students, who have been the focus of the mayor and chancellor’s education mission since 2003, were shown to be hovering just barely over the Level 3 line, the result of just enough test preparation but not enough solid education. When the bar was raised, their lack of mastery over grade-level skills and knowledge was cruelly revealed.

Here are the figures for the percentages of city students meeting standards, by race:

Math 3-8 2009 2010 change
White 92.2 74.5 -17.7
Black 75 40.4 -34.6
Hispanic 78.5 46.2 -32.3
Asian 94.9 81.7 -13.2
ELA 3-8
White 84.8 64.2 -20.6
Black 62.9 32.6 -30.3
Hispanic 62 33.7 -28.3
Asian 84.5 64.2 -20.3

What they show is Black and Hispanic students lost much more ground, as a group, than did whites or Asians. If you compare the racial gaps from 2009 to the 2010 gaps you see:

MATH: The black-white gap widened to 34.1 points in 2010 from 17.2 points in 2009. The Hispanic-white gap widened to 28.3 points from 13.7 points in 2009.

ELA: The black-white gap widened to 31.6 points in 2010 from 21.9 in 2009. The Hispanic-white gap increased to 30.5 points from 22.8 points.

(Statewise, racial performance gaps widened as well, but not as much. In math, the state black-white gap widened to 30 points from 17 points. The Hispanic-white gap widened to 24 points from 13. In ELA the state black-white gap widened to 30 points from 22, and the Hispanic-white gap widened to 28 points from 21.)

The city’s other high-needs students lost more ground, proportionally, as well. English Language Learners, who have logged steady performance gains over the last several years, fell back hard, to just 13.4 percent meeting ELA standards from 34.8 percent in 2009, while English–proficient students lost only a third of their gains. Just 23.2 percent of special education students met math standards this year, a drop of two-thirds, compared to a 31% drop for general education students.

Test prep vs education

At the city press conference, NPR reporter Beth Fertig asked the mayor if teachers’ longstanding complaints of excessive test prep resonated with him now.

The mayor snapped that “the things we are focusing on are the basics and until kids can do the basics,” talk of a more well-rounded education is “nice,” but irrelevant. “If you want to teach children to hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya,’” he said derisively, trailing off to the obvious point that these squishy skills are pointless until children’s test scores show they can read and add. Real life is full of tests, he said, and students have to learn to take them.

What he didn’t seem to acknowledge is that a test-prep curriculum has failed to even produce mastery of basics, as the new tests indicate. And by calling for a continuing focus on “the basics,” the mayor dodged the issue of whether prepping for a bad test is a good idea.

It’s not. What Steiner and other educators were saying rather bravely Wednesday about our state assessments is that they have failed. They don’t assess 21st-century reasoning or analytic skills and knowledge. Drilling for them — as teachers have said until they are blue in the face — isn’t leading to student success. One could argue that in the case of black and Hispanic children and special-needs students, it has amounted to fraud.

The good news is this is on track to change, spurred by state and federal efforts to fix the assessments and rewrite curriculum. It will take several years, and of course the outcomes are not guaranteed. But at least it is crystal clear now that the test-prep emperor has no clothes, and that is a major step forward.



  • 1 jacob
    · Jul 29, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    great post!

  • 2 Phyllis C. Murray
    · Jul 30, 2010 at 10:40 am

    Everyone is talking about the New York City Test Scores these days. And once again, the UFT was on the right page. However, the DOE was never listening to educators. The question remains, where do we go from here?

    “In light of the state’s more rigorous standards, the DOE’s success in raising pupil proficiency has turned out to be illusory.

    “The city desperately needs a real instructional strategy to improve our schools. As it starts to put one together, I hope that this time the mayor and the chancellor listen to people who know something about education, including the teachers who actually spend their days helping kids learn.” Michael Mulgrew


    New York State education officials acknowledged on Monday that their standardized exams had become easier to pass over the last four years and said they would recalibrate the scoring for tests taken this spring, which is almost certain to mean thousands more students will fail. NYTimes


    New state standards mean thousands more local students need remediation | LoHud.com | The Journal News


    More than 15% of the 400,000 students who took this year’s reading test registered at Level 1 – the lowest possible level – while only 2.8% did last year. An astonishing 85% of those lowest achievers were African-American and Hispanic.

    The new scores are so bad Sharpton has begun to distance himself from Klein. “I’m very disturbed and concerned by these scores,” Sharpton said.

    “We were told students were improving, but it seems our kids were victims of dumbed-down tests to make the administration look good,” New York Daily News

    DOE _ A Letter to Parents about State Test Scores
    Dear Parent or Guardian:

    As you may know, the State earlier this week released the results of the annual New York State math and English Language Arts (ELA) exams for students in grades three through eight.

    I am sure you are anxious to see your child’s results. In the fall, all families will receive individualized reports from the State with their child’s test scores. This report will help you understand areas where your child needs work and will show you how your child is doing compared to other students.

    Additionally, if your child was not promoted to the next grade in June and is currently enrolled in summer school, you will receive a letter later this week letting you know if your child still needs to take the citywide ELA and math exams in August. This decision will be based on your child’s final State test scores. If we had today’s State test results at the time summer school decisions had to be made, additional students would have qualified for summer school. Since these results were not available in time to place these students in summer school, they will instead receive additional support during the school year to ensure they master the content and skills necessary to succeed in their current grades.

    If you prefer to get your child’s scores in advance of the start of school, we are making scores available to parents online. Beginning Monday, August 16, you will be able to access your child’s test scores through the DOE’s ARIS Parent Link website, which provides personalized student data.

    If you have visited the site before, or if you have your child’s student ID number and a temporary password, go to http://www.arisparentlink.org to log in. Once there, click on your child’s student profile to see your child’s results on the 2010 State tests.
    If you do not currently have ARIS access, see the end of this letter for more details.
    As you know, we have made dramatic progress over the last several years. But this year, the State changed the way the tests were graded. As you may have heard, the State now holds students to a considerably higher bar compared to previous years. As a result, a score that last year was high enough to earn a rating of 3, or “proficient,” may only have earned a rating of 2, or “basic,” this year. The tougher grading system resulted in a significant drop in overall ratings across the entire State and here in the City. However, despite the drop in overall ratings, our students this year generally earned ELA and math scores that were consistent with last year’s results and, in some cases, were even better than last year.

    Mayor Bloomberg and I applaud the State’s effort to continue to raise the bar and set higher standards for our students. Earlier this month, the State adopted new national Common Core standards, which will begin to influence what’s taught in schools. These standards will introduce more writing, problem solving, and critical thinking and help teachers and principals better connect learning across different subject areas and grade levels. Principals and teachers this summer are already working together to map out how these new standards will begin to affect their work with your child next year.

    I expect each school in the City to analyze closely the State exam results and make the appropriate adjustments to curriculum and supports for students so that they can reach and eventually exceed these higher standards. I also expect each school to work with you and your child to identify areas of proficiency and strength, and areas that require extra support and attention.

    Make no mistake about it—we have already made tremendous progress, but we realize we must do even better. We will not give up until every child is receiving a high-quality education and until every graduating student is ready for college or a career. Looking back, and looking ahead, I’ve never been more hopeful that we can reach this goal.


    Joel I. Klein

    Instructions for accessing ARIS Parent Link if you do not have your login information:
    Your child’s school can provide this information to you in September, or schools that are open over the summer are able to provide you with your login information now. In addition, during the week of August 16, you can visit a location in each borough to get your ARIS Parent Link login information. Beginning Monday, August 2, specific locations will be posted at schools.nyc.gov/Accountability/resources/aris. Please note that because ARIS Parent Link contains confidential student information, you will need to provide a photo ID to receive login information.

  • 3 Richard Skibins
    · Aug 1, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    I think that we should reconsider allowing test scores to account for 20% of our teachers’ ratings.

  • 4 Celso Garcia
    · Aug 2, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    Most teachers already knew the test did not tell us much about profiency. In years past I have kids that could not spell “cat” (literally I am not kidding yet had 2s on the test in years past. There was child that I nicknamed in my head sir guess a lot he always got 2s on all state test and would finish in less then 10 minutes. Speak about negative reinforcement when a child says I do not have to do anything I am gonna pass the test blindfolded and if I have to go to summer school I will not go and still pass the grade. Then the teacher has to convince the child that this year is different. Guess what this year was not any different. So all the lies cannot get that child ready for life only convince him or her that life ia easy and education is easy. Guess what the system has just failed thousands of kids. Klein tells principals watch these kids more closely all year yet most principals are not educators and do not have the staff to carry this out. Let me guess the DOE will create a deputy chancellor for those kids or hire consultants or put out a multimillion dollar contract for ideas (no bid at the chancellors discretion.) If all fails blame the state, the unions the teachers, the parents or anyone that can relieve pressure from kleinmberg. Yes Kleinberg they do share the same brain.

  • 5 Paul Rubin
    · Aug 3, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Let me see if I have this straight. The tests are going to be made more challenging going forward. The budgets for schools cut further. And the ongoing bad economy will leave parents with fewer and fewer resources for their children. And all this will happen simultaneously. And yet we are to believe that if we simply change strategies we’ll going to fix this debacle? Yeah right!

  • 6 Phyllis C. Murray
    · Aug 4, 2010 at 8:36 am

    The latest test scores were especially startling for New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg staked his reputation on their meteoric rise. He was re-elected because of the supposedly historic increase in test scores and used them to win renewal of mayoral control. But now, the city’s pass rate in reading for grades 3-8 fell from 68.8% to 42.4%, and the proficiency rate in math sunk from an incredible 81.8% to a dismal 54%.

    When the mayor ran for office, he said that mayoral control would mean accountability. If things went wrong, the public would know whom to blame.

    But now that the truth about score inflation is out, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein steadfastly insist that the gains recorded on their watch did not go up in smoke, that progress was real, and they have reiterated this message through their intermediaries in the tabloids. In other words, they are using every possible rationalization and excuse to avoid accountability for the collapse of their “historic gains.”Diane Ravitch


  • 7 smc
    · Oct 13, 2010 at 6:22 pm

    It makes sense. Too many kids were qualifying as level 4 (enabling them to qualify for gifted and talented) without there being enough slots, so even the very top students weren’t necessarily getting into the kind of learning environment that was right for them (because not enough openings for all level 4 kids). Now, it is the TRUE level 4 kids that can get into gifted and talented — that level has been narrowed — more appropriate that it should be by merit and not by lottery that these kids get those slots.