If Test Scores Go Up Did Education Improve?

On Friday afternoon July 29, 2016, New York State released the results of student test scores on Common Core aligned standardized tests administered last spring. If you missed the announcement, that's probably why scores were released on a Friday afternoon the day the Presidential campaign went into full swing. The New York Times reported on the release in Saturday's paper on page 18.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is facing a tough reelection battle in 2017 was ecstatic with the test results. The percentage of New York City students who passed state English exams was up by nearly eight percentage points to almost 38 percent passing. For the first time this matched the overall state passing average. According to de Blasio, "These results represent important progress and outline real improvements across each borough of our city. We congratulate our students, families and devoted educators for this critical step forward."

Carmen Fariña, de Blasio's Schools Chancellor, was also pretty happy. "We have seen incredible improvement on these exams and it's so important that we've seen it in every single school district -- a testament to not only the hard work of students, but the importance of having strong educators at the helm: our superintendents, principals and teachers."

Of course these results mean that 62% of New York City students still failed the English tests, but why point a damper on improvement? Over a third of the city's students passed the math test, which was a slight improvement.

Unfortunately, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia also put a damper on the test scores. Because significant changes were made to the tests this year, comparisons with previous scores are invalid. The tests may have better. They were certainly shorter and were administered without a time limit. But they are clearly not the same.

Even with the changes, scores on the English test for students who are non-native English speakers did not improve. Fewer than 5% passed the exam. The performance of students with disabilities on the English test barely improved. Their passing rate was 9%.

Another problem with the rise in tests scores is that much of it can be attributed to charter schools where students are continually drilled for the tests. At New York City charter schools the percentage of children who passed the English test rose from 29% to 43%.

State officials also made efforts to down play the opt-out movement that is campaigning against high-stakes assessments. Statewide, over one-fifth of students did not take the tests, despite efforts by state and local education officials to convince families that students, teachers, and schools would not be punished because of test scores. Statewide the opt-out figure remained high although it was much lower in New York City where parents fear opting-out will affect the ability of children to get into better middle schools and high schools.

Writing for NY State Allies for Public Education, Bianca Tanis defended the opt-out movement and challenged the state's testing regime. According to Tanis, "tests are STILL based on inappropriate standards that lack a foundation in research or best practice;" "Teachers continue to have little meaningful input into the construction of state tests;" "State tests continue to be too long and continue to rob students of valuable learning time while diverting financial resources from school programming;" "State tests continue to lack instructional value;" The focus on test scores continues to narrow the curriculum;" and "Many children continue to be denied equitable, fairly funded public educations."

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