IMG_20130807_110607It was a tale of two press conferences.

Using words like “distressing” and “disheartening,” state education leaders struck a sober tone this morning at their Midtown offices to discuss this year’s test scores.

But at his press event a couple hours later, Mayor Bloomberg had a different take, identifying what he said was “very good news” inside the city’s lower scores.

The scores, the first to reflect students’ performance on tests aligned to new learning standards, were far lower than in the past and suggest that less than a third of students across the state are performing at grade level.

Statewide, the drops were sharpest for students who historically have struggled in school. Across the state, fewer than one in five black and Latino children are on track to graduate from high school prepared to take college courses, according to the new scores, officials said.

“Perhaps the most disheartening piece of today is the persistence of the achievement gap,” New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in her opening remarks. The racial disparities in reading test scores across all grades, Tisch added, “reveal the really daunting, daunting challenge.”

“It’s incredibly distressing,” said State Education Commissioner John King, when asked specifically about low scores in the state’s city school districts. In some upstate cities, less than 10 percent of students met the state’s new proficiency standards.

King and Tisch’s next stop, Tweed Courthouse for the city’s press conference, had a decidedly lighter feel. It was Mayor Bloomberg’s final test score presentation of his tenure, reprising an event that he has regularly used to bolster reform policies that he’s implemented during his 11 years in office.

“We’re here to discuss the new grades, which when you take a look at them and understand them, I think actually is some very good news,” Bloomberg said, adding, “Even though people haven’t written it that way yet, but I can only attribute that to people not understanding the numbers.”

The city’s proficiency scores, which rose sharply until 2010 when new state scoring led to significant drops, have come under scrutiny in recent days by political opponents who say he has misled parents about student learning gains.

But Bloomberg and an accompanying slideshow pointed to a number data points that showed city schools had performed relatively well. The city’s average proficiency in both English and math is closer to the statewide average than ever before, which Bloomberg said was notable since the state’s scores were positively weighted by many suburban districts with more affluent student populations. He credited city teachers for the performance.

Untitled_edit“For us to catch up to the state just couldn’t happen and yet it has happened,” Bloomberg said. “I think our teachers have really stepped up to the plate here.”

New York City’s proficiency slide was much less severe than the four other large urban districts in the state: Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers. While the city’s math proficiency rates dropped by about 50 percent, Rochester dropped by 80 percent.

But Bloomberg left out an important distinction when drawing comparisons to other cities, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew argued later in the afternoon.

“There’s one big difference between our school system and any other school system in this state. In this city we have mayoral control,” said Mulgrew, criticizing Bloomberg for not raising standards earlier. “He did not need to wait until the Common Core standards were pushed upon us from the state. He could have raised standards at any time.”

The city also focused on the performance of its charter schools, whose average proficiency rates were 35 percent in math, 11 points higher than district schools, and 25 percent in English, slightly lower than the average district school.

“We will continue supporting the growing charter sector in our city,” said Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

Comparing achievement gaps from one year to the next in year with new tests and a new standard baseline is a difficult endeavor, and state officials have warned against using year-to-year comparisons to draw conclusions about how much more or less students learned.

But one of the city’s slides sought to do just that, comparing how students did on the National Assessment of Educational Progress with the new state test scores to suggest that performance has improved since the last time the NAEP test was given in 2011. The two tests are intended to be similar, but an education researcher cringed at the comparison.

“It’s a pretty meaningless comparison because they’re different tests with different content and different perceptions of what rigorous means,” said Aaron Pallas, of Columbia University’s Teachers College. “I can’t see any justification for making that comparison.”

In New York City, the racial achievement gap widened based on a city analysis that compared proficiency rates to last year. While scores for Asian students were down just under 30 percent and fell for white students by under 40 percent, black and Hispanic scores were down by about 60 percent.

Officials said they couldn’t say definitively how much the achievement gap had grown. They said comparing year-to-year proficiency rates is not precise because many students who score near the proficiency threshold are black and Hispanic students, so negative changes in their raw scores are more likely to result in movement to lower proficiency levels.

“It’s reasonable to assume the achievement gap will get wider and it’s also reasonable to assume that kids are going to rise to the challenge,” said Chief Academic Office Shael Polakow-Suransky.