Six things to look for in the city's 2014 state test scores

This year’s release of New York state test scores, expected on Thursday, should be low on surprises.

One year after the switch to Common Core-aligned tests sent the city’s proficiency rates plummeting 24 percentage points in reading and 34 points in math, observers are planning for a slight uptick, as schools have grown more familiar with the Common Core standards and the new tests.

But for all the advance notice (11 months ago, Chancellor Merryl Tisch promised incremental improvement, which the UFT echoed last week), the annual release is still an occasion for officials to spin the results to fit their agenda.

The increase won’t need to be big for Tisch and State Education Commissioner John King to push forward with their plans for reform and, if anything, they’ll use the low overall marks as an argument to move more quickly. But that was quickly drowned out by critics last year who said the reforms were moving too fast or should be done away with altogether.

Here’s what we’ll be looking for when the scores go public:

1. Does the city continue to catch up to the rest of the state?

As state tests have repeatedly changed over the last few years, making year-to-year comparisons difficult, officials have turned to comparing to New York City to the rest of the state. By that measure, the city has fared well, edging closer to the state average each of the past four years.

Last year, 26.4 percent of city students hit the state’s proficiency standard in reading, less than five points below the statewide average. In math, the city was even closer. More than 29 percent of students reached the math proficiency bar, less than two points off the statewide average.

The city has also far outpaced the state’s other urban districts with similar student demographics. The closest city was Yonkers, a district of 26,000 students that posted just 14.5 percent proficiency in reading and 16 percent in math.

The city-state comparison might not be a fair contest this year, though. New York State Allies for Public Education, a group tracking and advocating the growing “opt-out” movement, estimates that nearly 40,000 students chose not to take the exams this year. The group estimates that about 900 of those came from New York City, and most of the others live in high-performing suburban school districts, meaning it could bring down the state average.

2. Did last year’s lowest-performing student subgroups fare any better?

One thing that didn’t change last year were the gaps among student scores. If anything, the state’s disparities grew worse as many students who previously earned low-but-passing scores found themselves in the failing group.

While students belonging to all racial and ethnic groups took a hit, the slide was steepest for Latinos and African Americans. Scores for white and Asian student were 30 percent lower on the English exam and 55 percent lower for black and Latino. Scores among English language learners and students with disabilities declined even more steeply, by 70 percent and 64 percent, respectively.

The state’s adoption of Common Core-aligned tests came after years of inflated scores created a public perception that struggling students were far more academically proficient than they really were. In particular, raising standards were meant to improve achievement for student groups who historically struggle to graduate ready for college work.

Their progress relative to white and Asian counterparts will be an important metric to follow, but improvement might not show up in the number of students who clear the level 3 proficiency bar.

According to a WNYC analysis, the scores of the vast majority of city students who scored a level 1 on one or both of last year’s exams were clustered just below the level 2 bar. If this group improves, the biggest gains could be seen in the movement of students out of level 1, which denotes the most severe challenges—but wouldn’t add to the number of students passing the exams.

3. How will Bill de Blasio and Carmen Fariña react to the results?

As the city’s public advocate and a candidate for mayor, de Blasio didn’t bother to wait for the state to release last year’s test scores before criticizing them. The expected score drops presented de Blasio with an opportunity to focus attention on his signature campaign pledge: to raise taxes on the rich to expand universal pre-kindergarten and after school programs.

“This is going to be a major wake-up call,” de Blasio said in a statement released nearly 24 hours before the actual scores went public. “We can’t keep working at the margins and focusing on a handful of niche schools. We need a game-change to raise outcomes for kids across the board.”

De Blasio has also strongly criticized his predecessor’s emphasis on test scores, making the Bloomberg-era press events featuring colorful slideshow presentations that offered the administration’s interpretation of the results unlikely this year. But another year of relatively low reading and math marks will give him another opportunity to tout his pre-K expansion and middle school programs, which he won state funding for this year.

The UFT’s take on the scores is another one to look out for. With an ally in City Hall, union leaders have spent the last week focusing their pre-emptive attacks on the credibility of Pearson as New York’s test-maker rather than city policies.

4. What will the scores mean for the Common Core backlash?

The 2013-14 school year was supposed to be the first full year when students would be exposed to Common Core-aligned curriculum before taking the tests. Still, many schools still didn’t get their materials until late in the fall or after, and teacher training has been sporadic. With proficiency rates unlikely to see a dramatic increase, most city parents will see failing scores when they receive their children’s results.

All of that could set the stage for another round of criticism of the standards.

Backlash against the Common Core gained steam leading up to this year’s exams in April and May. More parents opted their students out of taking the tests in protest, while teachers and principals criticized the test’s contents, policies prohibiting them from discussing what was on the tests, and state policies limiting the release of questions.

Now, two gubernatorial candidates, Republican Rob Astorino and left-leaning Zephyr Teachout, say they want to repeal the Common Core and give states and local school districts more say in developing learning standards. As the election approaches, officials across the state are paying attention to what the reaction will be from their constituents and supporters.

5. Have new state and city policies succeeded at reducing anxiety?

For years, state test scores carried considerable weight. They were used to justify the closure of low-performing schools, make students repeat a grade, and helped determine students’ access to selective middle and high schools. This year, they were also supposed to trigger real consequences for teachers and principals under a new evaluation system that factored student scores into teachers’ ratings.

A new mayoral administration, and a flurry of state legislative changes, mean that the tests are no longer the primary driver of many of those decisions. Still, higher-than-expected scores from struggling schools could keep them from having to undergo a state-mandated overhaul that could include replacing the school leader and possibly some staff, redesigning teacher training, or shutting down.

6. Will charter schools recover their lead in reading?

Last year, scores from some big-name charter school networks like Success Academy and Icahn Charter exceeded state averages and even compared favorably with some suburban school districts. As a whole, though, the city’s 183-school sector took a step back in reading and writing after making lofty gains in 2012, when 60 percent of charter school students were proficient in English, compared to a 45 percent citywide average. Last year, 25 percent of charter school students were proficient compared to the city’s 26 percent average. In math, the charter schools average was about five percentage points higher.

The sector’s performance on the second year of Common Core-aligned tests will be closely watched by both its supporters and critics. Big improvement could bolster the notion that flexibility enjoyed by charter schools can lead to quick changes in the face of new challenges.

High marks will also undoubtedly be used as networks continue to lobby the state’s charter school authorizers to approve more of their schools. Slower growth could be fodder for elected officials and advocates who are calling on authorizers to curtail their growth in the coming years.