A screenshot from today's online press conference featuring State Education Commissioner Richard Mills and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch.
A screenshot (including a caption) from today's online press conference about state test scores, featuring State Education Commissioner Richard Mills and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch.

More students across New York State scored proficient on the state reading and writing test this year than ever before, and gains by black and Hispanic students drove the improvements. The difference between white and black students’ average scores is now at 18 points, down from 28 in 2006.

More students in New York City scored proficient, too; proficiency rose 18 percentage points to 69 percent from 51 percent in 2006. According to the city Department of Education, the difference between the percentage of black and Hispanic children who scored proficient on the test and the percentage of white students who did now stands at 22 percentage points, down from more than 29 three years ago.

State school leaders described the gains across New York as “moderate” because much of the increases were driven by a greater proportion of children just squeaking past the proficiency cutoff, State Education Commissioner Richard Mills explained during a press conference this morning.

The difference comes from looking at the actual scale scores students received, rather than the percentage of students deemed proficient. Scale scores are considered the most statistically useful way to evaluate test score gains. (Aaron Pallas has written about this on GothamSchools.)

Mills explained the distinction by providing three ways to look at this year’s sixth-grade scores. The first is by looking purely at what proportion of students in the grade tested at basic proficiency. According to that metric, 81 percent of this year’s sixth-graders met proficiency, compared to 60.4 percent of sixth-graders in 2006, the first year of a new statewide curriculum and testing program.

Looking at proficiency over time, 69 percent of children in 3rd grade in 2006 met standards; those are the same children who posted an 81 percent proficiency rating as sixth-graders this year. But the scale scores of that same cohort of children actually dropped slightly over the same period, from 669 to 667. The scale score cutoff for proficiency is 650.

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One place where the scale scores did show a big jump was in the scores for black and Hispanic students. “Black students have increased their performance faster than white students,” Mills said, pointing to an 16-point gain in the scale scores for black students since 2006 (from 641 to 657), compared to just a 6-point gain for white students, whose scores remain 18 points higher on average. The scale score gains for black students show that the average black student is now considered proficient in reading, which was not true three years ago.

Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein touted the scores as signs they are making progress in the public schools. “I’m especially pleased that we are closing the shameful achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white peers faster than ever,” Klein said in a statement released today while he and Mayor Bloomberg were in Washington, D.C., for a conversation with President Obama and others about how to close the achievement gap.

Data the state presented today showed that scale scores in the city have been on the rise over time, but that almost every individual cohort of students has posted nearly identical scale scores each year since 2006.

At the press conference today, Mills and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, participating in a score release for the first time since she was appointed earlier this spring, emphasized that gains have been “steady” and “incremental” across the state. Of the “Big 5” cities in New York State, which are typically used to benchmark each other, all showed significant gains, Tisch said. New York’s City’s 18-percentage-point improvement in average reading proficiency level put the city at the middle of that group, with Buffalo’s 24-percentage-point gain leading the pack.

Answering a reporter’s question about whether Bloomberg’s school control could have contributed to the gains, Tisch said, “Mayoral control is not part of the conversation about the gains across the state, but it certainly didn’t hurt New York City.” She added that mayoral control probably benefited the city schools by bringing extra resources into the system.

During her introductory remarks, Tisch hinted at her priorities as chancellor. She reiterated a promise, first outlined in a New York Post op/ed last month, to push for a national standard of proficiency, noting that she joined Mills in Chicago in April for a conference of governors intended to start the process to create one. She also said she would focus on changes in scale scores so that schools realize they must help all children “instead of focusing all of our efforts on getting those just below the cut line to a point of mere proficiency.” And she said that the state must further enhance its test score analysis by looking on a “value-added” at how individual students perform over time.