First Person

ELA Scores Are Up–But by How Much?

Yesterday, New York released the results of the 2009 English Language Arts (ELA) assessment administered in January to students in grades 3 through 8 across the state.  Overall, there was a sizeable increase from 2008 to 2009 in the percentage of students who achieved the standard of proficiency in ELA, from 68% of all students in grades 3 through 8 in 2008 to 77% in 2009.  In contrast, the scale scores which underlie the proficiency standards did not increase as much, rising an average of four points across the six grades in 2009, just one point more than the increase observed in 2008.

In New York City, the results were even more striking, with the percentage of students in grade 3 through 8 who reached the standard of proficiency in ELA rising from 58% in 2008 to 69% in 2009, an increase of 11 percentage points.  The increase in sixth grade is astonishingly large;  whereas 53% of New York City sixth-graders attained the proficiency standard in 2008, 73% did so in 2009, a whopping increase of 20 percentage points.  Taken at face value, figures such as these suggest that students’ English Language Arts achievement increased dramatically from 2008 to 2009.  Some observers, including me, worry that the increases exceed the gains in student learning that could reasonably be expected from changes in instruction occurring over the course of a single year.  The changes could reflect the kind of score inflation that testing expert Dan Koretz wrote about in his recent book Measuring Up. 

There are multiple ways to look at the distribution of ELA performance in 2008 and 2009, and other approaches yield a different estimate of the magnitude of the gains.  The percentage of students meeting the proficiency standard represents a binary threshold—a student is either above the bar or below it.  If you believe that the proficiency standard means something beyond the context of a particular test, then increasing the number and percentage of students who achieve that standard is an important accomplishment.  But the percentage of students who meet the standard tells you very little about the performance of low-achieving students who are well below the proficiency bar, and very little about the performance of high-achieving students who are well above the proficiency bar.  The average scale score takes into account the performance of all students who take the state ELA test, and changes in average scale scores over time may be as meaningful, and perhaps more so, than changes in proficiency rates.

New York City has an unfortunate habit of referring to changes over time on the state assessments as increases or decreases in “points,” where the points refer to percentage point differences in proficiency rates from year to year.  This is potentially misleading because percentage points are an arbitrary metric when applied to a threshold measure such as the percentage of students who are proficient.  Still, comparisons over time that are made in terms of percentage points aren’t going away.  The challenge is figuring out if they are large or small.

Another way of representing changes over time is to look at the extent to which the distribution of scale scores in a year has shifted from the distribution of scores in the prior year.  For example, we can look at the mean scale score for the ELA assessment in a given grade in 2009 and see how much larger or smaller it is than the mean scale score for that grade in 2008.  In New York City, the average scale scores increased from four to 10 points between 2008 and 2009.  Here again, the issue is whether this is a little or a lot. To gauge this, I’m representing the scale score increase in relation to the 2008 score distribution.  If the 2008 average scale score is at the 50th percentile of the 2008 distribution, and assuming that the 2008 distribution follows the familiar bell-shaped normal curve, how many percentiles higher is the average scale score in 2009?** 

The figure below shows both the percentage point increase between 2008 and 2009 in the percent of students who achieved the ELA proficiency standard in grades 3 through 8, as well as the percentile increase for the average score from 2008 to 2009.  In five of the six grades, the percentage point increase in the percent of students who achieved the proficiency standard exceeded the percentile increase from 2008 to 2009, and often substantially so.  Still, the percentile increases are nothing to sneeze at.


How might we explain why the percentage point increase in the percent of students who achieve the proficiency standard exceeds the percentile increase in the average scale score?  One possibility is that the gains that were observed from 2008 to 2009 were concentrated in the range of scores near the proficiency threshold.  Boosting the scores of students near the threshold just a bit could push them over the bar without dramatically increasing the overall distribution of achievement.  We can’t be sure that this is what’s happening, but the figure below gives a graphic representation of the process.  The phenomenon at issue is known as focusing on the “bubble kids,” those students whose performance is just below the threshold.  In the figure, moving the three “bubble kids” from just below the proficiency bar to just above it increases the percentage of students who are proficient from 43% to 67%, a 24 percentage point increase. My colleague Jennifer Jennings was influential in bringing to national attention the incentives that threshold-based accountability systems such as No Child Left Behind create for focusing on the bubble kids to the exclusion of other students.


I’d love to believe that the increases in performance observed on the ELA assessment in New York City and across the state represent real and enduring changes in what students know.  Seeing gains of similar magnitude on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress would go a long way in convincing me.

**The percentile increases may be overly generous, because they are based on the amount of spread in the 2008 score distribution in New York City, which in some grades was substantially smaller than was observed in those grades in the years 2002 through 2007.  If the standard deviation used to calculate these percentile gains were larger, the percentile gains would appear smaller.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.