2010-07-23 / Top Stories

State Says Tests Getting Tougher

By Howard Schwach

A new study done by a Harvard University testing expert shows that the New York State examinations measuring how well students know English and mathematics have been getting much easier over the past few years, and state education officials have promised that the tests will change.

“The bar was set too low,” Deputy Education Commissioner John King said at a Board of Regents meeting late last week. “But we are changing that now.”

King admitted at the meeting what the state has long denied. Skyrocketing test scores do not necessarily mean that students are learning more.

“The exams have grown more predictable and they test students on only a narrow slice of the curriculum,” the state official admitted. “We haven’t been testing the right things in the right ways.”

“So,” he added, “we’re improving our assessments by raising [the level for passing grades], making exams less predictable, testing more areas and making the test longer.”

Both city and state students have shown huge achievement jumps in the standardized tests over the past three years.

Harvard University testing expert John Koretz, who conducted the study, said in his report, however, “It doesn’t appear that the big gains on the state tests generalize to anything else.”

In 2007, the report says, 51 percent of the New York City third graders through eighth graders passed the state English Language Arts (ELA) standardized test by achieving at least a level two. That number jumped to 69 percent in 2009.

Approximately 65 percent of the city’s elementary school students passed the math exam in 2007. In 2009, that number jumped to 82 percent.

This year’s numbers will be released sometime next week, Department of Education officials say, adding that they expect there will be “significant drops” in the 2010 scores.

Last year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his hand-picked Schools Chancellor Joel Klein crowed that their stewardship of the public school system and their concentration on reading and mathematics has changed the educational paradigm and changed education for the better.

As compared with the scores on national tests, however, New York City students have shown no gains over that same time period.

“We’re proud that New York City students have far outpaced the rest of the state in recent years, showing undeniable gains,” one DOE official said, reacting to Koretz’s report.

Koretz, however, answers, saying, “When one district shows bigger gains than another, it is not a reliable measure of anything.”

“It is very likely that some of the state’s progress was illusionary,” he said. “You can have exaggerated progress over all that creates a very high pass rate. It doesn’t seem logical to call these kids proficient.”

He added that New York City teach- ers have just done a better job of teaching to the test, arguing that they just did a better job of teaching what they knew was going to be on the test.

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein says he is in favor of the testing change.

“We’ve said a million times that we support higher standards,” Klein told the New York Times. “It will make all of us raise the bar.”

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