Learning Matters' John Merrow and New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch (Photo: Nancy Adler)

The city’s very low college and career readiness rate for black and Hispanic students is a statistic usually cited by advocates seeking to discredit the Bloomberg administration’s education record.

But when asked to measure the true value of a high school diploma in New York City Wednesday night by education reporter John Merrow, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch turned to the familiar statistic to convey her concerns.

“That, to me, is tragic,” Tisch said, after rattling off the numbers.

Merrow pressed her to account for the disparity between the city’s graduation rate, which is over 60 percent, and its low college-readiness rates. “Why isn’t this fraud?” he asked.

“I didn’t say it wasn’t,” Tisch said.

The exchange was part of a 90-minute public dialogue in which Tisch also criticized families who opt out of state tests, set firm limits about the city’s request to certify teachers, and proclaimed that the city and its teachers union would reach a teacher evaluation deal before Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mid-January deadline.

The conversation was part of a series at the JCC on the Upper West Side in which Merrow interviews high-profile education personalities. Past guests have included AFT President Randi Weingarten, former city Chancellor Joel Klein, Success Academy Charter Network founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz, and KIPP founder Dave Levin.

During the wide-ranging conversation, Tisch took a number of stands on contentious education issues facing the state. Notably, Tisch faithfully defended standardized testing and its use to measure student growth and evaluate teachers, even after Merrow confronted her with a copy of last year’s widely lambasted “Hare and the Pineapple” test question.

Tisch criticized parents who opted their children out of the state tests as setting a “dangerous precedent” about privilege. In the city, 113 students opted out of the math and reading tests this spring, and this month, some schools are refusing to administer field tests meant to help the state develop more challenging exams. The most vocal objections have come from parents at a handful of high-performing Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn schools with many middle-class families.

“When you choose not to be part of something, you’re sending loads of messages about who can and who can’t opt out,” Tisch said. “And I always think that’s a dangerous precedent.”

And despite her grim view of the city’s college readiness rates, Tisch also hailed Bloomberg’s decade-long effort to overhaul the city’s schools. She said Bloomberg wasn’t to blame for the city’s failure to prepare poor students of color for college and careers after graduation.

“In New York City, you’ve had a very deliberate attempt to try and fix the public school system,” Tisch said. “I think it’s been a heroic attempt.”

It was a common theme for Tisch, who carefully balanced her opinions on both sides of most of the issues Merrow raised.

In one breath, Tisch praised the energy that Teach for America’s teachers were injecting into the poorest neighborhood schools. In the next, she criticized the organization because too many of its teachers end up leaving the profession after only a few years.

“I don’t like the fact that Teach for America produces a lot teachers who come in and out of the system quickly,” she said.

Tisch had equally critical things to say about traditional teachers colleges and the NYC Teaching Fellows, a city-run alternative certification program that is now run by TNTP. Tisch said the program for years sent hundreds of unprepared teachers into the class room.

Tisch reiterated her support for the city’s recent proposal to certify its own teachers, so long as the city limited the practice to license areas where it hasn’t been able to fill positions, such as science and special education. But would she consider giving the city permission to certify teachers for any job?

“Absolutely not,” she said.

Perhaps the most urgent issue for Tisch and the New York State Education Department is the timeline that districts have to submit evaluation plans for approval. Gov. Cuomo has set a January deadline and threatened to withhold state aid from districts that miss it. As of 5:00 p.m. yesterday, Tisch said 495 of the state’s 694 districts have submitted plans.

The state’s largest district by far, New York City, is one that hasn’t submitted plans, but Tisch insisted she wasn’t worried about that.

“I am telling you here tonight that they will get to an agrement before the deadline,” she said.