PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoySamita Rahaman, an M.S. 101 eighth grader, told a city official why she hadn't been able to access her test scores.
Carolina Martinez was shocked when she logged on to the city's student data system on Monday to see her daughter's fifth-grade state test scores.
Sitting at a computer station at the Parkchester Library in the Bronx, with a Department of Education staff member at her side, Martinez said she saw that her daughter, Stephanie Bravo, had gotten 1's in math and reading — the lowest scores possible.
The bad news came as a surprise because Stephanie had gotten much higher scores, 3's and 4's, as a fourth-grader at P.S. 106 in 2012, Martinez said, and her teacher last year said Stephanie was doing well.
Leaving the library, Martinez said she didn't understand why Stephanie's scores had fallen so far. She said she hadn't heard that the state had adopted new standards, known as the Common Core, to propel students toward college readiness.
That wasn't the outcome that department officials hoped for when they fanned out to libraries across the five boroughs this week for "Log On and Learn" events aimed at helping parents access and interpret their children's scores.
It was a tale of two press conferences.
Using words like "distressing" and "disheartening," state education leaders struck a sober tone this morning at their Midtown offices to discuss this year's test scores.
But at his press event a couple hours later, Mayor Bloomberg had a different take, identifying what he said was "very good news" inside the city's lower scores.
The scores, the first to reflect students' performance on tests aligned to new learning standards, were far lower than in the past and suggest that less than a third of students across the state are performing at grade level.
Statewide, the drops were sharpest for students who historically have struggled in school. Across the state, fewer than one in five black and Latino children are on track to graduate from high school prepared to take college courses, according to the new scores, officials said.
"Perhaps the most disheartening piece of today is the persistence of the achievement gap," New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in her opening remarks. The racial disparities in reading test scores across all grades, Tisch added, "reveal the really daunting, daunting challenge."
Fourth graders in New York State answered this question about multiply whole numbers on their math exams this spring.
Along with this year's test scores — lower than in the past, if you haven't heard — the State Education Department also released test questions today.
The items posted on the department's educator resource website, EngageNY, represent a quarter of the questions that students faced when they sat down to take Common Core-aligned exams this spring. Usually the state keeps test questions under wraps, but this year it decided to publish some of them because of the new, tougher standards.
Critics of the state's testing practices say transparency can't be achieved if the entire test isn't released, and we don't know how well students did on each of the questions that have been released. Still, they offer a view into the skills and practices that students were asked to demonstrate, and a discussion of test scores without a discussion of what counted is thin indeed.
That's why we've collected a sample of the questions asked at each grade level on the state's math exams. (EngageNY has more questions, in-depth explanations about how to solve and teach each problem, and, for questions that asked students to show their work, examples of student responses.) We're hoping to spur a conversation about the questions that's even better than the one that already happened on Twitter today.
Check out the test questions below, then let us know in the comments what your favorite and least favorite is and why. We'll be highlighting insightful responses on Thursday.
In third grade, 33.1 percent of city students tested proficient in math.
Last year, 60 percent of city students in grades 3-8 scored "proficient" or higher on the state math tests and 47 percent passed the state reading tests. This year, the first that the tests were tied to new learning standards known as the Common Core, that number will be far lower — 30 percent in math and 26 percent in reading, according to early reports. Here are four things to ask about the test scores, in addition to how low they are.
1. Where are the outliers?
All scores are expected to be low, but some will be lower than others. And some will almost certain fall by much less than the average. Identifying those outliers will be a first step in telling the story of schools' first year under the new standards.
A school whose scores fall by far less than other similar schools might be the site of exceptional, Common Core-aligned teaching — or there might be more nefarious explanations worth looking into. On the other hand, a school whose scores drop by even more than other schools like it might have been propping up its performance in the past using test prep — that will be worth looking into, too. The scores alone won't tell the story of what has happened inside a single school, but they can provide a starting point.
2. What happened to achievement gaps?
The Bloomberg administration has touted reductions in the racial achievement gap even after state officials announced that test scores had been inflated. The state's test scores have showed some narrowing. But on other measures, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress, racial achievement gaps have barely budged.
Union and city officials are sparring in advance of tough test score news that arrives at a pivotal moment for Mayor Bloomberg's education legacy.
Scores due out on Wednesday reflect students' performance on the first tests tied to the new Common Core standards, which aim to get students solving complex problems and thinking critically. State officials have long warned that the new tests would produce lower scores, which they say will more accurately reflect students' skills, and in April, teachers and students reported that the tests were indeed challenging.
After the state sent a letter to principals on Friday confirming that the scores would be "significantly lower" than in the past, the United Federation of Teachers argued — as it has before — that the news will undermine Bloomberg's claims of education progress.
Chancellor Dennis Walcott called the union's criticism “despicable” and “really sad” during a conference call with reporters on Sunday. “What they're trying to do is politicize something that shouldn't be politicized at all," he said.
Instead, Walcott emphasized that the scores should be seen as a baseline against which to measure future improvement. Walcott and Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer, said they would not be comparing this year’s test scores to scores from past years.
"You can't compare these directly because they're not just slightly different tests, they're dramatically different tests," Polakow-Suransky said. "It's going to be difficult to make close comparisons with old state exams."
Contrasting his administration to previous ones, which have been criticized for inflating state test scores, State Education Commissioner John King agreed to accept proficiency bars recommended by a committee of educators with no revisions, as captured in this simple slide.
Commissioner John King pledged this week to accept the "cut scores" recommended to him by a committee of educators, one of the final steps remaining before the state releases results from the state tests.
Cut scores determine the number of right answers students need on state English and math tests to be deemed proficient in the subjects.
The announcement at this month's Board of Regents meeting came in the middle of a detailed 46-page slideshow presentation outlining how the "cut score" recommendations were made. But while the other slides were packed with numbers, graphs, and paragraphs, King's 10-word acceptance of the standards got its own simple slide: "The Commissioner accepted recommendations from Day 5 with no changes." (The full slideshow is below the jump.)
The flourish was a signal of the new transparency the department is trying to project around test scoring. In 2009, under then-Commissioner Richard Mills, dramatic improvements on state tests that had been seen as signs of academic progress across the state came under scrutiny for being inflated — not representing actual learning gains.
The inflation seems to have been the result of several factors, including focused test prep by teachers who became increasingly familiar with the tests. But at least one observer, Sol Stern, has reported that state officials might have deliberately inflated results by lowering cut scores so that more students would be deemed proficient. Commissioners do not have to accept the recommendations of the committee of educators that suggests where to set the scores.
More principals have committed to ignoring test scores when selecting students for admission, in a growing show of concern about the state's new Common Core-aligned reading and math tests.
Principals began making the commitment last week, but the number grew on Tuesday when letters explaining the policy change went out to "Elementary and Middle School Families, Students, Teachers, Parent Coordinators, Counselors and Principals" who might be affected by it. Now, 15 principals of selective schools across the city have said they will not consider scores on tests that they say did not meet their expectations.
"We appreciate that officials at the New York City Department of Education seem open to hearing our concerns and we hope for the same response from the state," the letter says.
The principals are part of a larger group who sent a letter to State Education Commissioner John King this week expressing concerns about the tests. They say they want the state’s tests to be shorter, open to public scrutiny, and more aligned to the Common Core, which emphasizes critical thinking and problem solving over recall and the completion of rote processes.
For the first time since introducing school progress reports in 2007, the Department of Education has reduced the weight of state test scores in determining middle schools' scores on their state test scores.
The change is slight, allocating just 5 percent of the calculation toward the grades schools hand out, but it reflects a significant shift within the Department of Education. After years of saying that the state's current tests are not the ideal measure of students' abilities, the department is — to a limited extent — putting its metrics where its mouth is.
Until now, 85 percent of elementary and middle schools' scores have come from crunching the scores in different ways. But on the 2011-2012 progress reports, which are coming out today, that proportion has dropped slightly for middle schools, to 80 percent. The difference will be made up by schools' course passage rates in the core subjects of English, math, science, and social studies.
The change, which the department promised a year ago, makes year-to-year progress report score comparisons hard to make yet is unlikely to dramatically alter schools' scores on its own. Still, it signals that the city is projecting onto middle schools growing concerns about the mismatch between how city students perform on some high-stakes accountability metrics and how well prepared they are to take on more challenging work.
The state released the results of this year's third through eighth grade tests yesterday, and officials from City Hall to the charter sector lept to celebrate students' gains.
Some changes were the focal point of the Department of Education's Tuesday afternoon press conference—like the drop among English Language Learners and the boosts charter schools saw. But they avoided nuances in the results for the city's new schools, which have been at the center of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's education reform policies. Beyond first impressions, here are seven interesting takeaways we parsed from the trove of data:
Like last year, English Language Learners took a step back. Students who are identified as English Language Learners improved slightly in math, but took another step back from the statistical gains they made on the literacy test (ELA) earlier in the decade, before the state made the exams tougher in 2010. While just under half of the city’s non-ELL students met the state’s ELA standards, just 11.6 percent of ELL students did so. But in math, the percentage of ELL students scoring proficient rose by 2.5 points, to 37 percent.
But students in other categories that typically struggle showed improvements. The percentage of students with disabilities who are proficient in math and literacy went up again this year, to 30.2 percent in math and 15.8 percent in English. And although Black and Hispanic students are still lagging behind their white peers by close to thirty percentage points in literacy and math, they also saw small bumps in both subjects. Officials said that new initiatives targeting struggling students, particularly students of color, contributed to the gains.
Two years ago, just one in three students at Achievement First Bushwick were rated "proficient" on the state's reading tests. It wasn't exactly the kind of result promised from a high-performing charter school in a "no excuses" network.
But the school has nearly doubled that rate in the two years since, according to state test scores released Tuesday. On the 2012 English language arts test, nearly 60 percent of students at the school were rated proficient, compared to 47 percent of students citywide.
Bushwick's gains on the reading tests were among the largest made in the charter sector, which improved as a whole by seven percentage points, from 44.5 percent to 51.5 percent. The improvement — from matching the citywide average to scoring well above it — has provided fodder for charter school advocates and the Bloomberg administration to push back against critics who oppose the expansion of charter schools across the state.
"Policy makers and legislators should take note" of the gains, said Bill Phillips, president of the New York Charter Schools Association."It’s not only a tougher measure than the host district comparison, it suggests that districts across the state should consider charters as another tool to better educate children."
"We can't possibly handle the demand from parents for the charter schools," Mayor Bloomberg said during a press conference Tuesday. "They're just off the charts."
Several charter operators announced their schools' test scores in celebratory press releases Tuesday. Deborah Kenny touted the eighth-grade math and reading scores at her schools, the Harlem Village Academies. The Success Academy network announced a 7-point gain in reading proficiency across its four schools with testing grades, more than twice the citywide improvement rate. And Democracy Prep said the low-performing charter school it took over last year had posted the largest reading proficiency gains of any school in the state, with third-grade reading proficiency hurtling from 28 percent in 2011 to 63 percent this year.
The charter school sector wasn't nearly as enthusiastic to promote its gains two years ago, when reading scores slumped. Struggles to boost literacy were not unique to Achievement First Bushwick.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, and Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky walked reporters through a powerpoint presentation on the city's latest test score results.
This afternoon, Mayor Michael Bloomberg enjoyed what could be his last opportunity to point to clear gains on city test data.
The state is overhauling its testing program next year, and year-to-year comparisons favored by Bloomberg's test analysts will soon become futile.
Until then, city officials are championing the small gains almost every group of students made on this year's state tests, calling the scores a sign that some fledgling school initiatives are already working.
Breaking the test results down by race, grade level and students with disabilities, each group saw gains of one to four percentage points for the numbers of students scoring proficient on the literacy and math exams. But students of color are still performing well below their white peers, and the number of English Language Learners scoring proficient in literacy actually dropped by 1.8 percentage points.
"There is still a gap, and it is unacceptable, inexcusable and it is our responsibility to rectify it," Bloomberg told reporters this afternoon. He speculated that the ELL scores dropped because the city has begun declassifying greater numbers of ELL students who have become proficient in English.
When state test scores are released in about half an hour, it will happen solely by press release. For the second year in a row, state education officials are not holding a press conference to announce the year's results.
Nor does the city appear to be planning to tout its scores. Last year, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott held a press conference to highlight the fact that city students' scores, while low, had increased more than those of students in the rest of the state. But there's nothing on Bloomberg's or Walcott's public schedule for today about the scores, and the Department of Education hasn't informed reporters about any surprise additions.
Quiet from the city and state usually does not bode well for increases in test scores, an annual announcement until the state raised proficiency standards in 2010 and scores across the state dropped precipitously. It's also unusual that schools are not getting their scores before the state releases them to the public. But rather than read the tea leaves, we've prepared a crib sheet for the news that will come later today.
Here are five things we'll be looking at when the scores come out:
What they say about students' stamina. Next year, state test questions will be tied to new learning standards, known as the Common Core, and so the questions themselves are likely to be more challenging. But this year's tests changed mostly in length, with students in elementary and middle school sitting for twice as long as they did last year. Teachers and parents worried about students' ability to retain focus for so long, and some teachers also reported that students were thrown by questions that covered unfamiliar content or took an unfamiliar format — likely ungraded questions that the state will use as it toughens tests next year. The scores that come out today could confirm — or refute — the teachers' and parents' fears.
A group of parents and teachers are once again preparing to opt their children out of state tests, this time when their schools will administer “field” exams in over a thousand elementary and middle schools across the city next month.
Field testing allows test makers to gauge the value of future test questions. Pearson, the company that currently makes New York's state tests, is preparing a slew of new questions that are aligned with new learning standards known as the Common Core. This spring's field tests focus on science, math, or reading, depending on the grade level. Students in selected schools already took the science test in mid-May, which was for grades 4 and 8. The math and reading tests are scheduled for the first week of June.
The parents and teachers, who are part of the Change the Stakes coalition, are calling on parents to protest the testing, which will be administered on behalf of Pearson Education, the test publisher that famously drew criticism for the “pineapple” test questions on the state’s eighth-grade English exam in April.
“This is just research for the company,” said Tony Kelso, whose third-grader is supposed to take the reading field test at Amistad Dual Language School in Inwood.
Kelso added that he doubted Pearson would get useful information from the tests. “My understanding is that the tests aren’t even reliable. The students know they won’t count so they don’t take them seriously,” he said.
An analysis of nearly 15,000 districts' test scores turned up suspicious patterns that suggested that some cheating might be taking place in New York City schools.
The analysis was conducted by a team of reporters and researchers at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the newspaper that covered last year's revelations about a far-ranging cheating scandal in Atlanta's schools. The team looked at changes in students' test scores from year to year, reasoning that large increases or decreases in groups of students' test scores would be unlikely without an unusual intervention such as cheating.
The analysis does not identify instances of cheating, only places and times when cheating is considered more likely to have occurred.
Most of New York's 32 school districts fell well within the normal range, with around 5 percent of classes showing unusually large score climbs or falls. But in a few places, the analysis detected swings in more than 10 percent of classes, a level that experts told the AJC team was highly improbable under normal circumstances.
In Brooklyn's District 16, for example, 7.95 to 12.82 percent of classes between 2009 and 2011 showed suspicious test score swings. Between 2008 and 2011, the percentage of classes flagged in Manhattan's District 2, which includes many middle-class students, ranged from 7.41 to 12.5 — significantly higher than in neighboring districts.
Across the state, school districts are inching toward teacher evaluation deals one week before a deadline Gov. Andrew Cuomo set last month.
According to NYSUT, the state teachers union, 100 school districts have agreed on how to put new evaluations in place and 400 districts "report making progress." That leaves just over 200 districts that, like New York City, are nowhere near agreeing with their local unions on new evaluation systems.
Cuomo said last month that if districts do not settle on new evaluations by next week, he would use the budget amendment process to change the state evaluation law. Last year, in a hint of what the changes might entail, the governor pushed state policy-makers to double test scores' weight, from 20 to 40 percent, in an action that drew a successful legal challenge from the union.
New York will get new terms for high- and low-performing schools — and new ways to define good and bad performance — under a proposed accountability plan designed to replace the requirements of No Child Left Behind.
The proposal, which was released in draft form late today and will be discussed by the Board of Regents on Monday, is the result of two months of planning in response to the Obama administration's offer to waive some of the decade-old federal law’s requirements, including one that requires full proficiency by 2014. In exchange, states must to commit to prioritizing college readiness, setting guidelines for teacher and principal evaluations, and holding schools and districts accountable for their students' performance on state tests.
Under the proposal, the bulk of the state's testing program would remain unchanged. But elementary and middle school students would take science tests; the bar to be considered proficient on high school exams would be raised; and proficiency would be calculated not just by whether students met certain benchmarks, but by how much they improved.
Schools that fall short would not get extra funding to pay for tutoring services, an arrangement that has shown mixed results. Instead, they would get extra money to carry out more of the initiatives that the Regents themselves have endorsed, such as improving teacher training and revising curriculum standards.
Five percent of low-scoring schools would become Priority Schools and have to undergo federally mandated school overhaul approaches. Another 10 percent would become Focus Schools, and their districts would have to develop plans to improve them.
For the first time, school districts will be evaluated with the same scrutiny as schools were under NCLB.
"Since district policies often contribute to why schools have low performance for specific groups of students," the proposal says, "districts must play a lead role in helping schools to address this issue."
New York City, a district certain to house many Focus and Priority schools, will not be evaluated as one entire district, according to a provision. Instead, each of the city's 32 districts would be evaluated based on state test scores for its schools.
Five days before the official start to winter, the Department of Education has finished crunching numbers from summer school — and found that nearly one in five students told to attend shouldn't have had to.
Of the elementary and middle school students whose test scores were so low that they had to attend summer school, two thirds were promoted in August, according to data the DOE released today.
The numbers also show that thousands more high school students than usual signed up for summer classes when it looked like they wouldn't have a chance to retake Regents exams in January.
Over 17,000 more high school students enrolled in summer school than in 2010, likely driven by the news that the state had voted to eliminate the January Regents exam administration, often used to retake failed tests required for graduation. The exams were reinstated in August, after the summer session had ended.
Elementary and middle school students have less choice about whether to attend summer school. In those grades, whether a student is promoted depends on his state test scores. But the city doesn't find out students' scores until August, when summer school is already over. So every year, the city must predict whether a student is likely to pass the state exam — and tell those who seem likely to fail to register for summer classes.
This year, the city told 34,069 students in grades 3-8 that they should attend summer school — or about 9 percent of all students in those grades. But 6,245 of those students actually passed the tests with a score of 3 or 4.
More city students than ever took exams that could earn them college credit last year. But the pass rate held steady at just over 50 percent.
The number of city high school students taking rigorous Advanced Placement exams last year jumped by 6.9 percent, according to Department of Education data released today. That follows a push by the DOE to expand access to college-level coursework to more students. The number of students passing the exams also rose by 7 percent, meaning that students' overall performance didn't improve.
Black students, who have lagged the most in both participation and performance on AP exams, did post higher scores, with 12.7 percent more passing tests than last year.
The DOE also released information about how New York City students did last year on the SAT. Nationally, performance dropped as the number of test-takers rose. But here in New York, 10 percent more high school seniors took the SAT, but students' scores overall held flat or dropped by one point on the test's three different sections.
Still, city students' average SAT score is well below the national average. This year, NYC students scored an average total score of 1,327, while the national average is 1,483.
Both SAT and AP exam participation and performance will be factored into the college-readiness metric that the DOE will premiere on high schools' forthcoming progress reports.
Despite our ongoing attempt to streamline the mountain of information that came with the state's release of the 2010-2011 test scores, there are still plenty of takeaways that haven't been said on a press release or at a press conference. After taking a slightly deeper look at the data, here are 10 worthwhile bulletins to consider:
Some of the neediest students took a step back; others showed progress. Students who are identified as English Language Learners, or ELL, improved slightly in math, but took another step back from statistical gains they made on the english test (ELA) earlier in the decade. While nearly half of the city's non-ELL students met the state's ELA standards, just 12 percent ELL students did so. That's down from 34 percent two years ago, when the standards were easier and 1 percent drop from a year ago. The ELL students improved slightly in math. Special education students improved in both ELA and math.
The achievement gap remains vast. Schools in poor neighborhoods still struggle the most. In the South Bronx — one of the nation's poorest congressional districts — and central Brooklyn, average proficiency rates were below 30 percent in ELA and below 40 percent in math. (Citywide rates were 57 percent in math; 44 percent in ELA). In the city's more affluent neighborhoods, like Bayside, the Upper West Side and lower Manhattan, scores hovered at significantly higher rates. District 26 in Queens topped out in both subjects, with 74 percent proficiency in reading and 88 percent proficiency in math.
New doesn't always mean better. More than a dozen schools in their first year of testing spanned both extremes of the performance spectrum. Half of them, including The Active Learning Elementary School, whose entire 20-student third grade class was perfectly proficient, significantly outperformed other schools in their districts. But many others struggled just as much as the closed schools that they were supposed to replace. In four such schools, less than a quarter of students did not meet reading standards. Just 5.8 percent of students at one school, Urban Scholars Community School, were proficient in reading.
Charter schools outperformed their neighbors, mostly. Citywide, 69 percent of students in charter schools met standards in math, up from 63 percent last year. In ELA, 45 percent were proficient, up from 43 percent last year. Both beat citywide averages. Nearly 75 percent of the charter school classes that took a state exam scored better than their districts, on average.
Click on the image to go straight to the new data below.
When the state and city education officials released the 2010-2011 ELA and Math test data on Monday, they didn't make it easy for interested New Yorkers to make sense of the scores.
One spreadsheet, released by the city Department of Education, left off school names and corresponded results only by school code. It also excluded public charter schools entirely. The state's spreadsheet included names, but listed every other public school in New York State as well.
There was also no easy way to compare schools to one another. The city included a comparison against previous years' scores, but the file didn't allow users to compare change over time among schools. The state's data didn't include any previous scores at all.
Not surprisingly, many of our readers emailed us to express their frustration over the scattered and unwieldy data. When I asked a DOE spokesman Matthew Mittenthal about it, he told me that grouping the data into school-by-school comparisons wasn't a priority when publishing the information.
"We would never use test scores alone for accountability purposes, so we don’t actively encourage people to compare one school to another on that basis," Mittenthal wrote in an email.
We spent the past couple of days playing with the spreadsheets so that it's easier and more intuitive. First, we corresponded codes used by the DOE to actual school names (for example, 15K447 = The Math & Science Exploratory School). Then, we stripped non-essential data and added last year's test results as a column header. Finally, we filtered the schools by performance so the best-scoring are at the top.