Test Pattern

Going inside the school system numbers that some parents want to get beyond

On city and state math and English tests the percentage of kids scoring "advanced" or "proficient" increased from 2004 to 2005 in all grades except eighth, where both English and math scores slipped. In the state math test that Bloomberg and Ferrer weighed in on two weeks ago, scores rose statewide in grade four and fell in grade eight. That could mean the tests were simply easier or harder. The DOE doesn't think that the tests are changing. It argues that its policies are paying off—at least when scores rise.

"The fact that we adopted a uniform curriculum in language arts and in math is a big deal," says Lori Mei, the DOE's head of testing. Also important was professional development, like teaching principals "how to look at data, how to disaggregate data." And then there is the interim testing, three times a year, that allows teachers to identify which kids need extra help before the big tests come. "Why wait until the end of the year to see if someone doesn't measure up?" Mei says.

Got milk?: Bloomberg already has got the schools.
photo: Richard B. Levine
Got milk?: Bloomberg already has got the schools.

All that testing, measuring, and identifying must cut into the time when kids aren't being assessed or prepared for assessment. But the DOE says the stuff on the test is what students ought to learn anyway. "These are the skills that they need," Mei contends.

The tests kids take aren't just for statistical uses; in grades three, five, and—starting this year—seven, they determine who gets promoted, and who goes to summer school. This year's summer school class improved its scores on the test that decides whether they stay back or not—the percentage of third graders earning promotion leaped from 49 percent to 55 percent. But almost twice as many students skipped summer school or the final test altogether this year compared to last. And among fifth graders who were sent to summer school, most of those who took the end-of-summer test failed to achieve grade standards. The DOE says those kids haven't had the benefit of multiple years of close attention.

Ending social promotion always sounds like a no-brainer, but with it comes the risk that holding kids back will simply drive them out of school altogether, perhaps after they enter high school. Ferrer has latched onto this point.

The New York City public high school class of 2004 graduated 54.3 percent of its students—only a third got Regents diplomas—and some 16 percent dropped out. The graduation and dropout rates improved in 2004. But like all averages, those rates mask wide disparities. While at Townsend Harris High School in Queens 99.6 percent graduated, at William H. Taft High School in the Bronx 37 percent dropped out. What's more, about a third of the citywide class weren't labeled graduates or dropouts, but instead are considered "still enrolled" and will be checked again when they are 21. If the past is any guide, some will graduate, but more will drop out. The classes that have been subject to the most rigorous testing in elementary school have yet to even enter high school.

The parents and activists who gathered at City Hall last week took no sides in Ferrer's attack on the dropout rate, and barely mentioned Bloomberg or his test scores. The connection between city politics and their critique was tenuous. (And they're not alone: A recent Quinnipiac poll said 66 percent of voters disapprove of the state of public schools, but 52 percent approve of the way Bloomberg has handled them.) Instead the complaints concerned a principal who had been transferred, black history that wasn't being taught, and most importantly, a feeling that they had no voice in schools anymore. When she gets the cold shoulder at her kids' school, says parent Carmen Colon, "I have to remind myself and then remind them that it is my right to be there."

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