'Hard Truth' on Education
New, Higher Standards for Proficiency Alter View of Years of Perceived Gains
Erasing years of academic progress, state education officials on Wednesday acknowledged that hundreds of thousands of children had been misled into believing they were proficient in English and math, when in fact they were not.
The bar for what it means to be "proficient" has now been set substantially higher. For instance, last year more than 77% of New York state students in grades three through eight reached proficiency in state English exams. Under the new standards, only 53% were considered proficient this year. The difference amounts to nearly 300,000 students across the state.
"We are facing the hard truth that the gains in the past were simply not as advertised," said Merryl Tisch, the chancellor of the state Board of Regents, during a news conference announcing the new standards.
In New York City, the number of students scoring proficient in English fell to 42% this year from 69% in 2009. In math, 54% of city children scored proficient this year, down from 82%.
The huge drops across the state raised questions about how much of the academic gains touted in the past several years were an illusion.
State officials said they believed some of the gains represented actual learning—though they acknowledged it was impossible to say how much.
They were careful not to assign blame for the previously low standards, saying that the tests had become too predictable and tested too narrow a range of knowledge, thus becoming increasingly easier year after year.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the schools chancellor, Joel Klein, held a news conference to stress that while the definition of proficiency had changed, New York City's progress on tests hadn't.
"I would caution you that this doesn't mean kids did worse," Mr. Bloomberg said.
He said that while there was still much work to accomplish in New York City, there is strong evidence that his administration of the school system has produced strong gains.
"We still have multiple measures of success," Mr. Klein said. He pointed to New York City students' performance gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the federal test that is considered the gold standard in measuring student achievement.
In both fourth-grade math and reading, New York City "now performs at the same level as the nation overall," the schools chancellor said. "This is a tremendous accomplishment." In contrast, he noted that the rest of the state has been essentially flat on NAEP scores.
Even so, one troubling sign Wednesday was that on a purely raw-points basis, which was not affected by the higher proficiency standards, New York City student test scores stalled in 2010 compared with 2009, after having increased markedly since 2006. "It concerns us," Mr. Klein acknowledged.
Mr. Klein had anticipated the higher state standard, and thus ordered double the number of students—26,000—to attend summer school this year than last year.
But it turned out that the new state standard on proficiency was so high that an additional 8,500 students should have attended. Those students will have to be watched carefully when they arrive at school in September for signs that they need extra help, the mayor said.
The change in proficiency standards hit some subgroups and cities harder than others.
In Rochester, for instance, the number of eighth-graders proficient in math dropped to 15% from 43%, while in Syracuse the number fell to 13% from 35%.
The losses were also more pronounced for minority children. The number of black children proficient in English in third grade through eighth grade was cut nearly in half, to 34% from 64%. Among Hispanic children, 65% proficiency in English turned into 37%.
David Steiner, the state education commissioner, said the reason was that a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic students were clustered around levels that had just made the proficiency level, so they were disproportionately affected when the proficiency level was increased.
While the magnitude of the shift is big, some say the state may not have gone far enough. "Just admitting it is a major improvement and a step in the right direction," said Robert Tobias, a professor at New York University's Center for Research on Teaching and Learning and the former testing chief in New York City.
But he warned that there may be other problems with the test that cannot be fixed by simply changing the point at which a student is termed proficient. "Unless you address those issues, you're proceeding in ignorance," he said.
Diane Ravitch, an assistant U.S. education secretary during the first Bush administration and now a frequent critic of reform efforts in New York and across the country, went a step further.
She praised the state's education commissioner for his "courageous, very brave and bold move," but added that "accountability means you find out who did it and have an investigation."