Assessment Opinion

National Tests Keep the Districts Honest

By Diane Ravitch — November 28, 2007 3 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I note with pleasure that The New York Times endorsed (again) the principle of national testing. My guess is that the latest NAEP results for New York City prompted them to do so.

As you know, New York City has been trumpeting its “historic gains” in test scores without let-up over the past few years, since Mayor Bloomberg gained control of the school system and persuaded the Legislature to turn it into the Department of Education. As part of what may be a nascent Bloomberg-for-President campaign, the Department’s very large public relations staff works hard to persuade the public that Chancellor Joel Klein has wrought a historic transformation and the kids in the city are now performing on a par with those in suburban districts. If only it were true!

Based on this energetic campaign, supplemented by a privately funded campaign of another $10 million, the city’s leaders have been selling their corporate-style, top-down organization as a model for the nation. The state scores were trending steadily upwards, enough to persuade the Broad Foundation to give NYC its prestigious award as the most-improved urban district in the nation in September 2007.

When NAEP’s urban district scores were released on November 14, it contained a heap of bad news for New York City. The reports compared progress in 11 cities and showed that NYC’s public schools had made “no significant gains” from 2003-2007 in 4th grade reading, 8th grade reading, or 8th grade math. The only subject and grade where there was a significant improvement during these years was in 4th grade math. However, doubt has been cast even on that gain because (as an article in the New York Sun pointed out), 25 percent of the city students received accommodations (e.g., extra time), a rate far higher than in any other urban district and double the rate for the city’s students only four years ago. Los Angeles, which has a far higher proportion of English-Language Learners than NYC, assessed with accommodations only 8 percent of its 4th graders on the math test, compared with NYC’s 25 percent. Giving such a large number of accommodations presumably would give the city an extra boost in scores in 4th grade math.

Reporters wondered how the Chancellor’s PR staff would “spin” the bad news. It didn’t seem possible. After years of audacious claims about “closing the achievement gap,” “historic improvements in reading and math,” etc., how to explain that there had been NO significant gains in reading in either 4th or 8th grade? And how, after the state proclaimed that 8th grade scores soared in both subjects in the spring of 2007, to explain that 8th grade scores showed no significant gain on NAEP? How to explain that there had been no significant gain for any subgroup of students from 2003-2007, not for whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, or lower-income students in three of four tests?

But it was possible and they did it. First, the Department issued a press release that focused almost completely on the 4th grade math scores, barely mentioning the main findings. Then, when The New York Times published a first-page story that accurately described the NAEP results for the city, the Chancellor’s office sent out an email that went to over 100,000 recipients, denying that acheivement was flat. He sent out a graph showing NAEP gains that started in the 2002-2003 year, before his reforms were implemented.

Even Lynn Olson, the very smart and able editor at Education Week, was taken in by the Department’s statistical legerdemain. In her story about New York City, she reiterated the spurious claim that reading scores went up in the early days of Children First, but this was wrong. They went up on the NAEP test between 2002 and 2003. The 2003 test was given in January-February 2003; at that very moment, the mayor and the chancellor first announced what they intended to do in September. Klein started his “Children First” program in the schools in September 2003.

If one sees significance in the national tests, which have similar standards for all states and cities that take it, then the clear winner among the cities over the past five years is Atlanta. Atlanta has an enrollment that is more than 90 percent African-American; it has a superintendent, Beverly Hall, who has been on the job for eight years. Its NAEP scores in math and reading at both 4th and 8th grades have trended steadily upward over the past five years. Something is happening in Atlanta that the nation should pay attention to. Too bad the Broad Foundation didn’t notice.


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