Are NYC Schoolkids' Test Scores Real or Dumbed Down?

Improvements reported, but skepticism abounds

Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have proudly announced that elementary and middle school students have made "substantial progress" in reading scores this year.

As the mayor runs for reelection, this achievement likely will be a major part of his campaign. He is also asking Albany to renew mayoral control of public schools -- and this touted progress will be a main argument for retaining his control.

But there are skeptics out there, people who think the progress is greatly exaggerated. As Juan Gonzalez, a veteran reporter and columnist for the Daily News, puts it, the rise in test scores may be "too unbelievable to be true." He quoted veteran educators as saying the jump in reading scores in New York City, 11 percent, was "astonishing."

It's interesting that fifth graders recorded a 20-percent increase in reading and that scores on these tests rose by an average of 9 percent throughout the state. Martha Foote, an education researcher with Time Out from Testing, said: "It's impossible that you would see this kind of change in just one year."

Some teachers have reacted negatively. One wrote to the Staten Island Advance: "As someone who has seen and proctored these tests, I can assure you they are completely dumbed down for the election year, and Bloomberg's data fetish so he can power-grab a mayoral control renewal and get his third term."

There are serious questions underlying this controversy. Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, whose job is to scrutinize the executive branch of government, told me that "the statistics indicate we're going in the right direction and clearly test prepping has paid off. But is that really education?"

She raises an important issue. If children are trained to pass a specific test, does that mean they truly understand the subject

Gotbaum added that the city's Department of Education has resisted giving her office the data on which some of the touted improvement is based.

"This isn't entirely passing the smell test," Gotbaum said.

When statistics and tests can drive teacher evaluations and promotions,  is there a temptation to make the tests as easy as possible? Or, worst-case scenario, cook the numbers?

When a reporter asked whether mayoral control could be behind New York City's improved performance, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said it "is not part of the conversation about the gains across the state, but it certainly didn't hurt New York City."

When kids are trained specifically to pass tests, when politics plays such an important role in determining future educational policy, when charges are made that tests are being dumbed down, when parents have largely been excluded from having an influence on policies, it's hard to be too confident about the future of education. It would be good for parents and children -- for all of us -- if an independent commission examined all the statistics and the arguments, thus de-politicizing the debate.

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