2010-08-06 / Front Page

‘A Sound Of Bursting Bubbles’

Test Scores Fall Across Peninsula
By Howard Schwach

For the past several years, parents and students have been told that the New York City public schools were improving each year.

The proof was in the pudding, said Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, pointing to the large gains made in the high-stakes English Language Arts and Mathematics standardized tests.

Last year, 86.4 percent of the state’s students in grades 3 through 8 were rated as “proficient” in Mathematics. Today, that number has dropped to 61 percent. Last year, 77.4 percent of the students in the same grades were rated as proficient in reading. Today, that number is 53.2 percent.

Since 2006, when the scores started climbing at an unprecedented rate, many teachers and principals began to tell reporters that the tests were getting easier to pass. Some testing experts, such as Diane Ravitch, noted education author, warned that the outsize annual gains were not credible. When nearly 9 out of 10 city schools received either an A or a B from the Department of Education, many locals scoffed that it was an impossibility for formerly failing schools to raise achievement so quickly.

The belief that there was something not kosher about the rising scores was exacerbated by the fact that state and city scores were flat on federal tests – long considered to be the “gold standard” of standardized testing.

The state Education Department hired a testing expert from Harvard University, who found that, indeed, the tests have been getting easier and the “cut score” – the number of right answers needed to achieve Level 3, the “meeting standards” or passing level – had dropped quickly over the past four years, allowing more students to achieve that level.

The state quickly made the tests more difficult and increased the cut score, resulting in the quick drop in those meeting standards.

“Now we are facing a hard truth, that all of our gains were not as advertised. We are doing a great disservice when we say that a child is proficient when that child is not,” said state Schools Chancellor Merryl Tisch. “Now, we are finally providing a clear and honest answer to the public to the question, how are our children doing.”

“When the [standardized test scores] were released, there was the sound of bursting bubbles across the state,” says famed education expert Diane Ravitch. “What were once miracles turned into mirages.”

Nearly all of the schools in Rockaway and Broad Channel have been impacted by “raising the bar.”

Middle School 53, which in 2008 was called one of the top schools in the city and given an A grade by the DOE, is now the lowest-performing school in Rockaway.

In 2009, it was reported that nearly 60 percent of the students in the school were proficient in reading, up from less than 10 percent six years before. Today, that number stands at 16.4 percent.

At PS 114, once one of the ten top schools in the city in terms of test scores, 93.4 percent of the students were proficient last year. This year, that number has dropped to 71.9 percent.

Only the Scholars’ Academy, the gifted magnet school for District 27, located on Beach 103 Street, has held its grades. Last year, 100 percent of the students were rated as proficient. This year, that number has dropped to 98.4 percent, keeping it as the top school in Rockaway.

Many of the local schools have dropped a full half from last year to this. • PS 42 in Arverne fell to 19.7 percent from 54.4 percent.

• PS 43 in Edgemere fell to 30.5 percent from 66.4

percent. • PS 104 in Bayswater fell to 30.2 percent from 60.6

percent. • PS 105 in Arverne fell to 23.2 percent from 63 percent.

• PS 215 in Wavecrest fell to 21.8 percent from 53.7

percent. • And the Goldie Maple Academy fell to 48.9 percent

from 80 percent.

“Since 2005, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein have trumpeted historic gains,” Ravitch said in an op-ed piece in the Daily News. “But, after the state’s adjustment, the pass rate on the state’s reading test among city students fell from an impressive 62.8 percent to an unimpressive 42.4 percent. Overnight, the city’s historic gains disappeared.”

“Now we know that achievement in the city and state did not grow by epic proportions,” the education expert adds. “The way to avoid similar messes in the future is to use test scores for information and diagnosis, but not for rewards and punishment.”

UFT President Mike Mulgrew hopes that the bursting bubble will change the way DOE officials look at education.

“I hope that this time, the mayor and Klein listen to people who know something about education, including the teachers who actually spend their days helping kids learn,” Mulgrew said.

Bloomberg and Klein are plugging ahead, however, with their plans, using the test scores to close schools as well as a determinant in paying teachers and granting tenure.

In fact, the chancellor apparently sees the new, lower scores as a victory for the mayor’s stewardship of the system.

In a letter to parents placed on the DOE’s website last week, Klein said, “As you know, we have made dramatic progress over the last seven years. But this year, the State changed the way the tests were graded. As you may have heard, the State now holds students to a considerably higher bar compared to previous years. As a result, a score that last year was high enough to earn a rating of 3, or proficient, may only have earned a rating of 2, or basic this year. However, despite the drop in overall ratings, our students this year generally earned ELA and math scores that were consistent with last year’s results and, in some cases, were even better than last year.”

“Make no mistake,” Klein added. “We have already made tremendous progress, but we realize we must do even better. We will not give up until every child is receiving a high-quality education and until every graduating student is ready for college or a career.”

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