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:
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.