2013's test score takeaways, starting with what didn't change

There’s no question what state and city officials want the public to remember about this year’s test scores, the first to reflect students’ performance on tests tied to the new Common Core standards: Teachers and students have their work cut out for them, and this year’s low scores are a baseline against which to measure future growth.

But beneath the buzz, and despite the fact that the scores can’t be compared directly to last year’s, there’s more to learn from the state’s data dump. Here are six things we’re still thinking about as we leave Common Core test score-week behind:

1. Everything we knew about schools’ and students’ relative performance is still true. The new tests did nothing to displace old inequities. Schools with many low-income families posted lower scores than schools with many middle-class students. Students of color still lag behind white students. Selective schools continue to blow neighborhood schools out of the water. (Eight of the 10 grades with the highest scale scores in the city were at two citywide gifted programs.) Students who don’t yet know English or who have disabilities are at a steep disadvantage.

So even though it felt like everything changed this week, and something important did, the city and state enter the new school year with many fundamental — and uncomfortable — truths intact.

2. We don’t know exactly what happened to the achievement gap, but it isn’t good. There is no one way to measure the achievement gap, the term that describes performance discrepancies between students with different characteristics. But according to multiple measures, it widened, and state officials say they plan further analysis.

Because all groups of students hit the new proficiency bar less often than in the past, fewer percentage points separate each group’s performance on the new tests. But how student groups’ proficiency rates compare to their rates on the old tests varies widely. In New York City, Asian students hit the state’s new proficiency bar 30 percent less often than last year. White students hit the new bar 32 percent less often in reading and 37 percent less often in math. Black and Hispanic students, on the other hand, hit the bar 56 percent less often in reading and roughly two thirds less often in math.

City officials said they expected the racial achievement gap to widen because a larger proportion of students whose scores were situated at “the bubble” (to borrow Jennifer Jennings’s term) between passing and failing were black and Latino. When the bar was raised, these students were the first to slip below it, even though the standards were different.

“If you’re in the bottom of the whole group and the base is moved up, more from the bottom will fall out,” Mayor Bloomberg said Wednesday at the press conference announcing the scores. “Nobody at the top’s going to fall out of it.”

State Education Commissioner John King said his hunch is that disparities between wealthy and poor districts’ scores remained “proportionally similar” as in the past. But state officials said they planned a more complex analysis that uses scale scores, which they have not released, rather than proficiency rates.

Teachers College researcher Aaron Pallas has his own methodology for analyzing the achievement gap that looks at the probability that a student in one subgroup would outperform a student in another subgroup. This year, he said, there was a 73 percent chance that a randomly chosen white or Asian student had a higher proficiency on the English exam and 77 percent chance of scoring better in math. That’s up slightly from 2012, when the numbers were 71 percent and 75 percent, respectively.

3. Charter school performance ranged just as widely as other schools’ performance. Or maybe more. Some city charter schools did very well, while others struggled mightily under the new standards. The Success Academy network had 58 percent of students pass the state’s proficiency bar in reading and 80 percent in math, while the Icahn network had some schools that were even higher-performing than that. But some other big-name networks, include KIPP and Democracy Prep, posted proficiency rates in the single digits in some of their schools. (The New York City Charter School Center’s interactive graphic about the sector’s performance shows each school’s relative performance over time.)

One possible explanation for the poor showing in some charter schools: the proliferation of “bubble kids” in the charter sector. Another possibility: that some charter schools, like some district schools, achieved their test-score results in the past by narrowly focusing their instruction on what was tested.

The charter sector certainly did not deliver the kind of results that make a continued expansion under the next mayor a mandate. But it got some good news: City charter schools far outperformed charter schools in the rest of the state.

4. The clearest winners are the mayoral candidates. Although city officials have vowed not to punish anyone because of the low scores, the scores have downsides for teachers, principals, students, Department of Education officials, and Mayor Bloomberg. Some of their biggest critics, on the other hand, have the most to gain.

“If you’re the new mayor, this couldn’t be better,” Hunter College professor Joseph Viteritti told the New York Times today. “You couldn’t ask for a better beginning.”

That’s because the scores represent not just a new baseline (as the city’s test-scores hashtag emphasized) for city students but also for Bloomberg’s successor. State officials say they expect scores to rise “incrementally” — in keeping with a widespread phenomenon that happens when standards rise — and a new mayor, if he or she is anything like the current one, can cite that upward movement as proof that his or her policies are paying off.

5. Officially, the tests weren’t too darn long, officially. After the second day of English testing ended, one persistent issue was heard on Twitter, on school listservs and in our inboxes: The tests were too damn long. One teacher estimated that as many as 40 percent of her sixth-grade students finished.

But a routine analysis of the test items, which the state conducts annually for its technical reports, showed that none of the questions had an “omit rate” higher than the average range of 3 to 5 percent, officials said this week. The omit rate is based on how often individual questions were left unanswered.

The time complaints reached the state’s highest ranks this spring, when Chancellor Merryl Tisch recalled that a student asked for more time on next year’s test. Officials suggested this week that they are likely to take the advice, despite the unremarkable omit rate. They said this week that even though data analysis didn’t bear out a higher-than-average number of questions that went unfinished, they were considering ways to allow for more time.

6. Being an immigrant is a disadvantage on tests, until it’s not anymore. Not surprisingly, students who don’t speak English struggled to pass the state exam designed to test precisely that subject. Just 3.4 percent of New York City’s English language learners passed the state’s reading tests, making them the worst-performing subgroup in the city.

It might seem unfair to require these students to take an English exam that’s been designed for native-speaking students. But federal law requires districts to give the same tests to all students who have been in the system for a year, even if they came from another country and still don’t speak the language. “It takes more than one year, usually, to learn English,” said Department of Education Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky.

But there’s a flipside. Once students learn the language, which Polakow-Suransky said takes about three years on average, “you start to see their performance skyrocket,” he said.

Twenty-two percent of former English language learners passed the English exam, just four percentage points off the citywide average. Thirty-one percent passed the math exams, equally the state and city proficiency rate, compared with 11 percent of students who are still categorized as English language learners.