Are High-Stakes Tests Harming NYC Schools?

Are No Child Left Behind and Bloomberg's report cards pushing schools to go grade-grubbing?

It was not Mayor Bloomberg's proudest moment. Last month, the federal government released New York City schools' rankings on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math tests for 2009—and their scores had flatlined, even as scores on the state Regents exams continued to rise. "Don't trust the Regents," shouted a Post editorial headline, saying that the NAEP gap had revealed New York State's testing regimen to be "a pathetic joke."

It seemed like yet another Albany scandal, to go along with Client 9 and state legislators locking each other out of the Senate chambers. Yet according to a growing chorus of parents, educators—and, quietly, school administrators—the test-score brouhaha is just a symptom of a deeper problem with roots in Washington and City Hall. The advent of the No Child Left Behind Act, they say, coupled with the test-score-based school Progress Reports that Mayor Bloomberg introduced in their wake, have led to a rash of undesired consequences: curricula overrun by test prep; dumbed-down tests that ask questions designed for younger grade levels; and widespread pressure on both schools and government officials to fudge their numbers—by outright cheating, if necessary.

No Child Left Behind "opened up a Pandora's box here in New York, where Mayor Bloomberg and the DOE just took it and ran," says Martha Foote of the statewide coalition Time Out From Testing. The result, she and others charge, is the worst of both worlds: a school system obsessed with test scores that are increasingly meaningless.

The name "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) was meant literally: By the year 2014, every child in U.S. public schools was supposed to be "proficient" in both math and reading for their grade level. To achieve this ambitious goal, NCLB introduced an alphabet soup of new standards. Schools failing to meet the thresholds for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for two or more years would be tagged SINI (Schools In Need of Improvement), and threatened with escalating sanctions, including having to pay to bus kids to non-failing schools in the same district, adding test prep courses, revamping curriculums, and, ultimately, the death penalty: being taken over by the state, or shut down entirely.

If the fear of failure was supposed to scare schools straight, it hasn't worked out too well. By 2008, about 40 percent of schools nationwide had landed on the Needs Improvement list, with about half of those being listed at least two years running and, as a result, facing sanctions. These numbers are likely to worsen in coming years, thanks in part to states choosing to set low standards in the early years of NCLB before ramping them up later—a dodge that Monty Neill, director of the Boston-based group FairTest, calls the "balloon payment approach."

"There is just zero evidence that you're going to see anything other than three-quarters to 100 percent of schools not make it by 2014," says Neill.

In New York City, the looming NCLB crisis has drawn little notice. In part, that's because schools' concerns about landing on the Needs Improvement list have been superseded by fear of running afoul of Bloomberg's own "accountability" initiative: the school Progress Reports that assign a letter grade of A through F to every public school—based mostly on state test scores—with principals who earn insufficient marks facing dismissal or even having their schools closed.

"For the first time over the past three years, the Department of Education has set up expectations for schools around what students should learn," says acting city schools accountability officer Shael Polakow-Suransky. "Principals were held accountable for all kinds of things—number of fire drills they did, number of times they got in the newspaper—but not for how much their kids were learning."

That only works, though, if the test scores are a reliable gauge of learning. One of the oddities of NCLB is that while it set up national standards for how many kids needed to be proficient, it left it up to each state to determine what "proficiency" means. States not only design their own tests, but also set their own "cut scores," the minimum necessary to earn a passing grade under NCLB. The result has been a mishmash of testing regimens: Alabama, which lowered its standards, leapt to fifth in the nation in NCLB compliance, while Massachusetts, which kept its tough tests, fell to near the bottom.

New York State pegs NCLB scores to its already existing fourth-grade, eighth-grade, and high school Regents tests, using a fiendishly complex scoring system that involves a weighted average of students scoring at "basic" (2 on a four-point scale) and those judged "proficient" (3 or 4). Since 2003, state scores have risen, with a notable leap last year that resulted in only 297 city schools landing on the Needs Improvement list, down from 409 in 2008.

Whether this is a sign of improving performance or grade inflation is a matter of intense debate. Steve Koss, a longtime city parent and educator, notes that a decade ago, a 65 on the ninth-grade math Regents meant that a student had answered 65 out of 100 questions correctly. Today, students only need to get 30 questions right out of 87 to garner a 65. And the questions, he says, are easier: High-schoolers in 2008 were asked to calculate the percentage discount $15 represents from $18, typically considered middle-school level knowledge.

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