Reading scores in New York City: Achievement stalled

The recent release of English Language Arts scores for grades 3-8 by the New York State Education Department was treated as a cause for celebration by the New York City Department of Education. Chancellor Joel Klein said that the scores showed that "the system is clearly moving forward."

Actually, the news was not all that positive. None of it was terrible, but the scores were mainly flat or declining. Overall, in grades 3-8, 50.8% met the state standards. This represented an increase of one-tenth of 1% over the scores in 2006, when 50.7% met the standards.

  • In grade 3, the scores dropped by 5 points, from 61.5% in 2006 to 56.4% in 2007.
  • In grade 4, they dropped nearly 3 points, from 58.9% in 2006 to 56.0% in 2007.
  • In grade 5, they dropped by 0.6, about half a point, from 56.7% in 2006 to 56.1% in 2007.
  • In grade 6, they increased by 1 point, from 48.6% in 2006 to 49.7% in 2007.
  • In grade 7, they increased by a tad more than a point, from 44.2% in 2006 to 45.5%.
  • In grade 8, they increased by 5.2 points, from 36.6% in 2006 to 41.8% in 2007.

The big news, according to the Department of Education spinmeisters, was not that scores in grades 3-7 were either declining or flat, but that scores in eighth grade were up significantly. They downplayed the curious fact that eighth grade scores were up across the state by 7.7 points, from 49.3% to 57%.

Nassau County eighth grade scores jumped from 69.8% to 77.4%, nearly eight points. Suffolk County saw a gain in this grade of 9.3 points, from 61.1% to 70.4%. In the troubled Roosevelt, Long Island, district, under state control for the past five years, eighth grade scores leapt by an astonishing 22 points.

Gains of this consistency in district after district suggest to testing experts that the test for the eighth grade was decidedly easier than in years past.

The grade that is most interesting to contemplate in the latest ELA scores is fourth grade, because these are children who started school when the Children First reforms were first implemented. From first grade through fourth grade, they have been educated under the balanced literacy program mandated by Chancellor Klein. Almost every other literacy program was banished.

This is the grade that is the true testing ground of mayoral control. Recall that the Children First agenda was first implemented in the schools in September 2003. When Children First began that fall, 52.5% of the fourth graders met state standards. Now, after four rounds of state testing, 56% of the fourth graders met state standards.

Thus, after four years of Children First, reading scores in the fourth grade are up by a total of 3.5 points. In the five years before the initiation of the Bloomberg-Klein regime, reading scores in fourth grade climbed steadily and sharply from 32.7% to 52.5%, an increase of 19.8 points.

This may explain why the Chancellor and Mayor have reorganized the schools yet again, why they are continually in search of new assessment tools, and why they are planning to offer cash and pizzas for higher test scores. In four years under their control, the schools have not shown dramatic achievement. In fact, their record does not match what was accomplished in the previous five years under Chancellors Rudy Crew and Harold O. Levy.

Another way to look at the scores is by comparing year-to-year changes of the same cohort of students, that is, the value-added gains, rather than comparing the fourth grade in 2003 to the fourth grade in 2007.

This is not difficult to do, because the annual testing of students in grades 3-8, which started in 2006 in response to the requirements of NCLB, makes it feasible to compare the performance of the same cohort of students as they advance through the grades.

In grade 4, 56.0% met the state standards in 2007 (levels 3 & 4); a year earlier, 61.5% of the same cohort met the standards, a drop of 5.5 points.

  • In grade 5, 56.1% met the standards; a year earlier, 58.9% of the same group met them, a drop of 2.8 points.
  • In grade 6, 49.7% met the standards; a year earlier 56.7% of this group met them, a drop of 7 points.
  • In grade 7, 45.5% met the standards, compared to 48.6% who met them in 2006, a drop of 3.1 points.
  • In grade 8, 41.8% met the standards in 2007, compared to 44.2% of the same group in 2006, a drop of 2.4 points

The data also permit us to look at the eighth grade cohort longitudinally.

Students who are now in eighth grade were in fourth grade in 2003. In 2007, 41.8% of this group met the standards; in 2003, when these children were fourth graders, 52.5% met the state standards, a drop of 10.7 points.

Considering the score changes from the perspective of "value-added," the steady decline in test scores is even more alarming than the comparison of grade-to-grade, because there are no gains at all.

These year-to-year comparisons for the same grades suggest that progress has been sluggish at best. After five years of mayoral control and four years of the Children First "reforms," it is evident that test scores decline steadily for each cohort of students.

Now the Chancellor promises to add new tests, with the expectation that more testing means more learning. This is not good news. Testing is not a substitute for a sound curriculum and effective instruction.

(Graphics prepared by Leonie Haimson from data provided by the New York State Department of Education)

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