Education Department Chancellor Klein Meets The Press
New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein held a press conference at the Tweed Courthouse on September 21 to discuss the results of the just released 2006 English Language Arts (ELA) 4th and 8th grade test scores. While not quite ecstatic, Klein seemed pleased with the results - despite the fact that they showed little or no improvement over last year.
City fourth grade scores dropped slightly, but less than the rest of the state. While Klein attributed this drop to a slightly harder test, he felt it was important that the gains of the previous years had been upheld, a point echoed by UFT President Randi Weingarten who held a brief meeting with the press on the steps of Tweed after Klein's conference.
In 2005 when there was a big jump in 4th grade scores that occurred throughout the state, Klein and Mayor Bloomberg ignored the gains across the state as the Mayor trumpeted the results in his reelection campaign, attributing the improvement to his educational reforms. Some teachers charged that the test was extremely easy, tailored politically rather than educationally in an election year.
This year, across the grades, there was also a significant jump in NYC of Level Ones, the percent of students at the lowest grade level. That was somewhat surprising since numbers of teachers hired to mark the exams in February complained that many exams they graded as Level Ones, were ordered changed to Level Twos after consultation with state officials who created the grading rubric, in essence making the results throughout the system look better than they should have been. "A child practically has to breathe on the paper and we are ordered to give them a Two," said one teacher. A harder test and an easier rubric could theoretically cancel each other out.
At the press conference, Klein compared the NYC results with the so-called Big 4 cities of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers as a more apples-to-apples comparison. Last year when the Big 4 showed gains corresponding with NYC, Klein did not make such comparisons, claiming it was his reform package that was the difference, not the nature of the test.
The news was somewhat better for the 8th grade scores, though still dismal, as 36.6% of 8th graders scored Level 3 & 4. Klein claimed a rise of 7.1% in 8th grade scores in the four years he has managed the DOE, statistically higher than the rest of the state.
The Big 4 rose 4.95 in this same period. Yet as Bob Tobias, former head of testing for DOE, pointed out, the results in 8th grade are only 1.3% higher than seven years ago - when the state first established this exam. Klein attributed the severe drop off in performance with each succeeding grade once children leave elementary school as being a national problem.
State Education Commissioner Richard Mills was quoted in the NY Times: "The overall pattern is disturbing. Literacy is the problem. This pattern is not inevitable. This pattern has to change... We still have a lot of work to do. We have to do something different. We have to change our tactics, our curriculum, our approach."
One teacher had a different take. "They want to make is seem that scores stop dropping after the 4th grade because of the curriculum or teacher quality as a substitute for funding education anywhere near the range of the wealthy suburbs or exclusive private schools. Class sizes are often kept low to assure better scores in a scrutinized grade and allowed to rise after that. So much time is spent practicing for the test instead of actually learning to read in a meaningful way, which leads to artificially pumped up scores, much like a weight lifter pumping up a bicep for a competition. When the level of intensity is reduced in the 5th and 6th grades because they do not get as much focus as the 4th grade, the 'muscle' goes down as they revert to their 'true' reading level."
Some teachers feel that a truer measure would be to track individual children from the 4th to the 8th grade over the years as a method of getting valid information that could be useful for them. They point to the fact that a certain number of children held over actually take FIVE or more years to go from the 4th to the 8th grade and this has an impact on scores, usually skewing them upward.
Both Randi Weingarten and Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters also disagreed with Mills and Klein, saying that there is a correlation with rising class sizes after 4th grade and worse performance, a point that Klein and Mills totally ignored.
As average class sizes in NYC rise dramatically in grades 5 and up, the percent of students scoring at grade level drops -
5th grade: 56.9% at grade level
6th: 48.6% at grade level
7th: 44.3% at grade level
8th: 36.6% at grade level
While the average class sizes in NYC compared to the rest of the state are significantly higher -
5th grade: 26.6 vs. 21.9
6th grade: 27.6 vs. 22.3
7th grade English: 27.9 vs.
7th grade Math: 28 vs. 21.3
8th grade: 28
Class sizes in NYC, particularly in 7th and 8th grades, have not fallen significantly in seven years according to Haimson. But the averages tell only part of the story. "According to an analysis from the Independent Budget Office a few years ago," Haimson said, "60% of middle school students remained in classes larger than 28, with nearly half of them in classes larger than 30. The Bloomberg administration continues to tinker at the edges by creating K-8th or 6-12th schools. But as long as our middle school students continue to be deprived of the individual support they need because of their class sizes, we will not see major improvements in these grades."