Four big questions to ask about New York City's new test scores

Last year, 60 percent of city students in grades 3-8 scored “proficient” or higher on the state math tests and 47 percent passed the state reading tests. This year, the first that the tests were tied to new learning standards known as the Common Core, that number will be far lower — 30 percent in math and 26 percent in reading, according to early reports. Here are four things to ask about the test scores, in addition to how low they are.

1. Where are the outliers?

All scores are expected to be low, but some will be lower than others. And some will almost certain fall by much less than the average. Identifying those outliers will be a first step in telling the story of schools’ first year under the new standards.

A school whose scores fall by far less than other similar schools might be the site of exceptional, Common Core-aligned teaching — or there might be more nefarious explanations worth looking into. On the other hand, a school whose scores drop by even more than other schools like it might have been propping up its performance in the past using test prep — that will be worth looking into, too. The scores alone won’t tell the story of what has happened inside a single school, but they can provide a starting point.

2. What happened to achievement gaps?
The Bloomberg administration has touted reductions in the racial achievement gap even after state officials announced that test scores had been inflated. The state’s test scores have showed some narrowing. But on other measures, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress, racial achievement gaps have barely budged.

The new scores will add another data point to the debate. King signaled on Tuesday that there remain significant achievement gaps by race and socioeconomic status. That’s no surprise — but what will be worth extra scrutiny is whether the new tests magnified gaps that already existed, or whether the tougher material had any kind of equalizing effect. If it turns out the black students or poor students handled the more challenging tests even less well, for example, that will raise serious questions about past gap-closing claims and about the education that high-need students are getting.

Of course, one funny thing about achievement gaps is that they can close even when everyone’s performance falls. It’s possible that black and white students will do similarly poorly — and in that case, it will be fascinating to see how state and city officials talk about discrepancies.

3. How is the city talking about the change?

Three years ago, when the state raised the bar for students to be considered proficient, city officials did little to prepare New Yorkers for the bad news. The day the scores came out, Bloomberg scrambled to find the right message — and he wound up striking a relativist tone.

“Everybody can have their definition of what it means,” Bloomberg said about the lower scores. Later, he added: “The last time I checked, Lady Gaga is doing fine with just a year of college.”

This time around, the city is not leaving its messaging up to glibness. Education officials have worked to manage expectations about the low scores for more than a year, and in the last week, they have aggressively worked to control the test-score narrative. On Tuesday, for example, Chancellor Dennis Walcott noted that Bloomberg had called for higher standards in a 2006 Washington Post op/ed. (A year later, Bloomberg said he was “ecstatic” about the city’s outsized single-year state test gains.)

We can expect to hear Bloomberg emphasize today that comparing this year’s scores to last year’s is like comparing apples to oranges — and that is true, statistically. But New Yorkers still want to know how the city’s schools performed under their three-term mayor, and hearing that more than a decade of touted growth should be forgotten is unlikely be a satisfying option. We’ll be listening for how the city situates the new scores inside the narrative it has projected up to now.

4. How does the city compare?

In recent years, as the state has raised standards, city officials have turned to intra-state comparisons to prove New York City’s relative success. Last year, the city’s scores increased by more than the rest of the state’s, and its growth also outpaced several other large cities, so even though the city’s one-year gains weren’t huge, they looked large in comparison.

City officials seem prepared to make the same comparisons today, arguing that preparation here has been strongest for the new standards. If New York City’s scores fall less than the scores of the other large cities that students here are often compared to, one explanation could be that the Department of Education’s preparation paid off. (Extreme dysfunction in the other cities could be another explanation.)

But if the decline cuts across similar districts in the state evenly, it could be that the preparation was not enough, as the teachers union has claimed. Other possibilities could be true: that even as the city asked for instructional changes, teachers stayed their previous course, as so often happens in school reform, for example. Or that the city’s students were asked to perform so far below the new standards in the past that a massive one-year effort made little dent. Again, score comparisons with the state won’t tell a complete story, but they will offer new ways of looking at what has happened in city schools over the last year.