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Student Achievement Plummets on NYS Exams

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After years of steady improvement, it now appears that test scores have fallen in New York State. The percentage of elementary and middle school students passing the annual math and reading tests has dropped by double digits. Just 53 percent of students met the standards on their English Language Arts exams in grades 3 through 8. That's a 24 percentage point drop since last year. The percentage of students passing the math tests fell by about the same, with just 61 percent now on grade level.

State officials had warned the scores would drop this year because they've been making the tests more rigorous. But it was still a stark difference. At a press conference in Albany, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch called the results "sobering."

"Today I’m urging all New Yorkers and especially parents and school leaders to look at these results not with disappointment and anger but with a renewed commit to providing our children tools to succeed," she said, before Education Commissioner David Steiner delivered the news.

There was no way to dress it up.

The percentage of students who passed the 2010 math and reading tests in grades 3-8 fell by about 25 points. That was across the state. Almost all the arrows that had been trending up for years suddenly took a nosedive. Only they didn't fall quite as much for white and Asian students and wealthy districts as they did for low-income districts, black and Hispanic pupils, English Language Learners and special education pupils.

For example, among black students, 75 percent passed the math test last year. This year, only 41 percent passed. But white students fell from 92 percent passing in math to 71 percent. And last year, 36 percent of English Language Learner students passed their reading tests while this year only 14 percent were considered proficient. The low number was about the same for students with disabilities, almost 40 percent of whom passed the test last year.

State officials had prepared the public for lower scores than last year. They'd acknowledged that New York students have been scoring much lower on the national math and reading tests than on the state exams. But commissioner Steiner said that didn't mean students weren't learning.

"Some portion of the increase in scores was simply due to learning gains," he said. "That is students got better at understanding the material that we were testing. The difficulty was that the tests were very narrow in their focus," he explained, adding that the tests didn't include all of the state's standards and had become too predictable. He said cost savings were also a factor.

This has been one of the knocks against the No Child Left Behind Law. In forcing states to put so much pressure on test scores, critics believe states have dumbed down their tests to make it appear that more students are passing. The double-digit increase in math and reading scores here in New York fits that pattern.

But while Steiner conceded that previous tests might have been too easy, he said the dramatic change in scores wasn't just because the exams had suddenly gotten much harder. Althought the math test included more types of questions, the real difference was the a change in the cutoff for passing.

Previously, students had to score 650 (out of more than 700 points) to get a level 3, or to be considered proficient. This year the state raised that by anywhere from 20 to 30 points (across grades 3-8). As a result, students this year needed to score a lot higher to be proficient. Commissioner Steiner says the new pass rate corresponds with what it takes for a student to be on target in high school. A child who scores at Level 3 (out of 4) is far more likely to get a 75 or 80 on his or her high school regents and do well in college. A student who scores a Level 2 is more likely to get a 65 on his or her Regents, which is the new minimum.

In New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomerg has staked his political career on improving the schools, the mayor insisted the news wasn't so bad. He focused on the actual test scores, which still hovered at around the 650 levels in many grades. Bloomberg said these students would have passed if the state hadn't changed the cutoff for scoring a Level 3.

"Nothing has changed," he told reporters. "You're writing a story about a change in a definition and trying to attribute -- not motives -- effects of it. The effects that I worry about are that the teachers, principals and parents, but particularly the students, will think all of a sudden all of their efforts have been for naught."

A breakdown of city test scores can be found here.

Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein also said the dip in performance among black and Hispanic pupils was because many of them had hovered slightly above the 650 cutoff, meaning what was good enough to earn a Level 3 in previous years now only earned them a 2. The mayor said the double-digit gains of previous years were real because city test scores went up more than the state's. But he did agree that it's good that the state is raising standards now.

But teachers took another view. The president of the teachers union. Michael Mulgrew, issued a statement saying in light of the state's more rigorous standards, the city's success has turned out to be "illusory." Teachers and principals have complained for years that there's been way too much focus on test preparation. While they were happy when scores went up they also confessed to drilling their students in many cases, and not having enough time to spend on arts and history and other subjects because the tests are so important.

Districts including New York City have put tremendous focus on test scores. The city uses them to grade schools based on student progress. And a new state law allows districts to measure teachers based partly on student test scores.

But the state says better standards and better tests will eventually reveal whether students really are learning what they need to graduate. New York State adopted the national standards this month and will be phasing them in over the next two years.