Test Pattern

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

No sooner did state math test results come out two weeks ago than the mayoral candidates pounced. "The dramatic increase in fourth grade math scores we announce today is another encouraging sign that our reforms are taking hold," Mayor Bloomberg crowed at the nine-point rise for those kids. To which Fernando Ferrer said, "How much more evidence do we need that Mike Bloomberg's obsessive focus on test scores isn't working?" He lamented the 1.6 percent drop in eighth grade scores.

The significance of one year's worth of scores, up or down, is questionable. What isn't debatable, however, is that this is the way we talk now about education policy: measurement, data, value-added, and testing, testing, testing. Democrats have faulted Bloomberg's focus on testing —Ferrer even hinted that there was something funny about scores rising in an election year—but when it comes down to it, everybody's looking at the same numbers and speaking the same language. It's all about the scores.

Bloomberg wants voters to judge him on schools, and test numbers are going to be Exhibit A in that trial. The most important vote for the future of New York's schools won't be on November 8, however, but in a couple of years, when the state legislature decides whether or not to extend mayoral control of the system, which expires in 2009. If test scores dominate that debate, it will miss some of the fundamental changes that have taken place in schools.

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

Like the 90 new, smaller high schools that will have opened by the end of the school year. Or the $250 million the city's Department of Education (DOE) has earmarked for new charter schools through 2009. Or the less tangible changes in the lingo and the concept of public schools.

"Education is not a business," said Kathy Torres, a parent at P.S. 2 in the Bronx. "It's a human right." She was standing on the steps of City Hall last Wednesday as a hodgepodge of groups from Amnesty International to the New York Collective of Radical Educators announced they're forming a task force to, in organizer Sam Anderson's words, "completely revamp the public education system, not to reform what is unreformable."

Their beefs ran from the condition of student bathrooms to the lack of "culturally affirming" curricula to military recruitment in schools. The unifying theme, however, was that the conversation about public schools has become loaded down with references to quantitative measures. "The whole vocabulary of this group is product delivery," says parent activist Cecilia Blewer, "and the widget, in many ways, is the kid, and the customer is the parent. If they don't like the product they can take their business elsewhere. But there's no sense that this is a civic partnership."


The rhetoric of last Wednesday's rally—with its references to white privilege and the "destruction" of minds and "we shall overcome"—echoed the late '60s and the push for community control of schools that began in Ocean Hill and Brownsville. The communities won, but the idea was doomed from the outset. Elections for community school boards were buried by being slated for May of each election year, and no one voted. The need to balance power meant the voting system was complicated, which turned voters off. Corruption and incompetence marred the boards, their power was eroded over time, and then they were dispatched after Bloomberg won control of the school system in 2002.

Mayoral control was on the wish list of every New York City mayor since at least Ed Koch; Rudy Giuliani said failing to get it was his one regret after eight years in office. Bloomberg named control a priority in his inaugural address, and won it just over half a year later when the state legislature approved a version of his plan.

It wasn't the first time Bloomberg would push hard—and debate would be muted—for his school plans. In March 2004, three members of the successor to the board of education, the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), opposed the mayor's plan for ending social promotion. So the mayor and the Staten Island Beep simply replaced them with people who voted the way they wanted. The PEP hasn't bucked Bloomberg since. In seven PEP meetings this year 10 votes were taken. There were votes of "no" on only two occasions, both in the minority.

Thus the PEP's power seems, at best, limited. Meanwhile, the Department of Education says the city comptroller's office, which is supposed to review contracts for all city departments, has no authority to vet school contracts because the department is a creation of state law. But the state comptroller's office says it doesn't review the DOE's deals either. Since 2002, when mayoral control began, the DOE has logged a significantly higher number of noncompetitive contracts than in the years immediately before.

This lack of oversight might be exactly what mayoral control was supposed to entail. What it was meant to accomplish was better schools. The question is how to measure that. Bloomberg points to test scores and summer school results, and Ferrer to dropout rates. All those numbers are more complex than simple ups and downs.


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.

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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