In a guest editorial here last week, Sol Stern observed that New York State had significantly raised the bar for meeting proficiency requirements on state tests and that fewer students are meeting the new standard (“The testing mess,” August 5, 2010). Seeking to parlay that into a wholesale attack on New York City’s progress since Mayor Bloomberg took over in 2002, Stern and Diane Ravitch have launched several recent broadsides. The facts tell a different story, however.

It's no secret that many states have low standards; and the gap between “proficiency” on state tests and on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams is typically very large. Mayor Bloomberg pointed that out in a 2006 op-ed with Jeb Bush, and recommended that the "well-respected NAEP…should become an official benchmark for evaluating states’ standards.” So NYS did the right thing in raising standards. But that doesn’t erase the fact that, by multiple measures, NYC has made substantial progress. 


Let’s start with NAEP, theldquo;gold standard.” In fourth grade, on the Mayor's watch, NYC has made big gains—11 scale-score points in English and 11 in math. The percentage of kids proficient in math went from 21 percent to 35 percent—a 67 percent increase—and the percentage proficient in English went from 19 percent to 29 percent—a 53 percent jump. Indeed, NYC’s performance now matches that of the entire nation in fourth grade, even though NYC serves a much more challenging population. That’s called “closing the achievement gap.”

In the eighth grade, the results are mixed and trending up. We’ve gained 7 points in math, mostly since 2005, and, while we’re flat in English, on the last exam we were up 3 points, boding well for the future. Overall, NYC’s gains on NAEP dwarfed those of rest of New York State and were also greater than those of the nation. Even Ms. Ravitch has acknowledged NYC's “significant progress.”

New York State tests

Although the state tests need to be improved, NYC's performance nevertheless reflects real progress. First, let’s look at how NYC would have performed in the past under the new, much more rigorous proficiency standards adopted by the state. We’ve had grades 3-8 testing in NYS since 2006 and, applying the new standards, our overall proficiency rate would have gone up by 6.4 points in English (from 36 to 42.4 percent) and by 22.1 points in math (from 31.9 to 54 percent). Going back to 2002, the gains are substantially larger.

Second, regardless of how you define proficiency, large increases in scale scores matter. Numerous longitudinal analyses in NYC and NYS have shown that students with a scale score of 690 in the eighth grade, for example, have a far greater likelihood of graduating and meeting NYS’s new definition of “college-ready” than do students with a 670. Similarly, students who score better on the state tests in the lower grades are more likely to score better in the higher grades.

NYC has repeatedly made those kinds of gains. From 2006-2010 our scale scores went up across the board in grades 3-8, by an average of 23 points in math and 13 points in English. Those are big gains and, if we go back to 2002, they’re considerably larger—46 points in fourth grade math, for example.

The dimension of these gains is readily seen by comparing NYC with two groups that took precisely the same tests: (1) other large urban school districts in NYS (called the “big four”: Syracuse, Yonkers, Buffalo, and Rochester); and (2) the rest of NYS districts. In 2002, NYC was close to the big four and distant from the rest of the state. Since then, we’ve moved away from the big four and much closer to the rest of the state. In fourth grade math, for example, we were 3 scale-score points ahead of the big four in 2002 and 22 scale-score points behind the rest of NYS; by 2010, we were 19 scale score points ahead of the big four and only 6 points behind the rest of NYS. 

The same pattern holds for proficiency results, even with the declines on the latest tests. In eighth grade math, we were 10 percentage points ahead of the big four in 2002 and almost 30 percentage points behind the rest of NYS. Today, we’re 25 percentage points ahead of the big four and 15 behind the rest of NYS. On fourth grade English, we were 4 percentage points ahead of the big four in 2002 and 26 behind the rest of NYS. Now we’re 13 percentage points ahead of the big four and 19 behind the rest of NYS.

Several other key comparisons underscore this progress. NYS has sixty-two counties and, in 2002, NYC's five were at the bottom. Today, all five have made major gains, with two now in the top half. The same results are seen when the thirty-two school districts in NYC are compared to the thirty-two largest districts outside NYC. From 2002 to 2010, the city districts dramatically and consistently outgained the others. Finally, at the school level, in 2002, 9 percent of NYC’s schools were ranked in the top quartile statewide, while 62 percent were in the bottom. Today, the number in the top quartile has doubled to 18 percent, and the number in the bottom has decreased by almost one-third to 44 percent.

High school graduation

NYC's gains in graduation and college-going rates are also large. In the decade before the Mayor took over, the city’s graduation rate had stagnated in the mid-forties. Last year, it was 63 percent.

This increase has resulted in significantly more NYC students going to college. From 2002 to 2009, the number of graduates attending City University of New York (CUNY) colleges went from 16,000 to over 25,000—a 57 percent increase—while the number attending non-CUNY colleges also increased. At the same time, the percentage of students requiring remediation at CUNY decreased, meaning that more than 5,000 additional NYC students—an almost 80 percent increase—were college ready at CUNY in 2009 compared to in 2002.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed, “The true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time.” That’s what’s required to assess NYC’s record. On the one hand, NYC has a lot to do to improve student performance: More students need to graduate and they need to be college-ready. On the other hand, that recognition doesn’t remotely undermine the demonstrable progress NYC has made during the past eight years.

Klein is chancellor of the New York City Department of Education.

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