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Report: Test score gains predate Bloomberg and mayoral control

A Brooklyn lawmaker is throwing doubt on two key arguments in both Mayor Bloomberg’s re-election campaign and his effort to keep the mayor in charge of the public school system: The idea that Bloomberg’s leadership is responsible for city students’ rising scores on standardized tests — and the extent to which achievement actually improved under Bloomberg.

In a paper released earlier this year, Assemblyman James Brennan points out that city students’ test scores were rising steadily for four years before Bloomberg took office, and, in some cases, at a faster pace than they have under Bloomberg.

He also argues that a list of changes in the schools that are unrelated to the Blooomberg administration or mayoral control (a near quadrupling of early childhood programs, for instance, and a dramatic increase in state funding that dates back to 1998) are the real reason for the gains the system has made.

“I generally don’t view their success to be credible,” Brennan, who could play a significant role in the mayoral control discussions this spring, said in a recent interview. “I do not believe that some of the recent improvements in the school system are directly related to policies of Klein.”

Brennan’s stance directly challenges the mayor and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who declare in speeches, billboards, television advertisements, and interviews that their changes to the school system are responsible for a battery of improvements, including higher test scores. A Department of Education spokesman, Andrew Jacob, defended this point of view in a short memo disputing Brennan’s conclusions.

The memo argues that the city’s test scores are rising more steadily than scores across New York State, and accuses Brennan of ignoring several Bloomberg administration policies, including the opening of hundreds of new schools and transfers of funds to schools from the bureaucracy. It also points out an indisputable rise in the graduation rate, which soared by 10 percentage points under Bloomberg, compared to a change of just one-tenth of a percentage point in the entire decade before he took control of the schools.

Below the fold, I’ll walk through each part of the dispute.

The first sticking point is whether test scores really rose more under Mayor Bloomberg and mayoral control than they did before. Brennan’s report points out that, on most measures, city students actually showed more progress between 1998 and 2002 than they did once Bloomberg took office. Under Bloomberg, the percentage of fourth-graders who passed the state math test rose by 13 percentage points, compared to 17 points between 1998 and 2002. Fourth-grade reading scores follow the same pattern: up 9 points under Bloomberg compared to 20 points before he took office.

Jacob’s memo argues that this is a flawed analysis because it looks at raw city data, rather than comparing city scores to the state. The gap between city and state scores for fourth-graders, he shows, closed more under the Bloomberg administration than it did before. The pattern is even more pronounced among eighth-graders, who were outdone by the state average before Bloomberg but made gains under the mayor.

At the same time, the strength of this trend depends on whether you follow the department’s lead on what year to use as zero for considering Bloomberg’s effect. Test scores rose sharply in the city between 2002 and 2003, making 2002 the more flattering baseline to compare future scores against. The Bloomberg administration now uses this date, arguing that it’s appropriate since Mayor Bloomberg took control of the schools in June of 2002, and by the time students were tested in 2003, Klein had been hired and changes had begun.

But Brennan, echoing other critics of the administration’s data, says that 2003 is the better baseline. He argues that Klein’s program of changes didn’t start until after the 2003 tests had been given, in September of that year, and so the gains between 2002 and 2003 aren’t his to claim. These critics point out that when the 2003 test scores were announced, the conventional wisdom attributed the improvements more to Klein’s predecessors than to him. Using Brennan’s framework, Jacob’s look at the state-versus-city test score gap becomes weaker, with fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores showing virtually no difference compared to the state, though there is still a small difference in math scores.

The second sticking point is over what explains the rising test scores. Brennan points to a list of efforts to improve the school system that were well underway when the mayor still stood at the helm of Bloomberg LP. An increase in funds that almost doubled the city school budget began in 1998; an investment in pre-kindergarten that has almost quadrupled the number of 4-year-olds enrolled in early childhood classes also began that year. It was also 1998 that the state introduced heightened graduation standards, forcing high schools to begin considering how to prepare students to meet a much higher bar.

A drop in class sizes for students in early elementary school began as a program under President Clinton. The chancellor who preceded Klein, Harold Levy, created a slew of program, including the Teaching Fellows program that is credited with bringing an influx of new blood into the teaching profession. He also argues that the accountability measures Bloomberg and Klein introduced to focus principals’ attention on poor students and children of color truly began with President Bush’s federal No Child Left Behind law.

Compare that, Brennan suggests, with some of the key reforms under Bloomberg and Klein — such as progress reports for schools and the effort to empower principals — which only began in the last three years. “Generally speaking,” the report concludes, “the overwhelming proportion of student improvements in the past ten years had already occured by 2006-07 and new reforms have little relevance as ‘dramatic’ improvement.”

Jacob’s memo says the DOE agrees with Brennan about the importance of programs like pre-kindergarten and summer school. But it accuses the assemblyman of ignoring other critical reforms that the Bloomberg administration alone accomplished:

We’ve opened hundreds of new schools to give parents more choices. We’ve cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the bureaucracy and empowered our principals to spend them in the ways that will best help their students. Most importantly, we’re holding every school accountable for helping all their students make academic progress.

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