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State standardized tests scores are up, but what does that mean?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein’s emphasis on standardized test scores appears to be working: an analysis of state test scores before and after mayoral control reveals “a broad and steady march upward,” the Times’ Elissa Gootman and Robert Gebeloff report.

The rates of New York City students passing standardized English and math tests have risen at a faster pace than statewide passing rates overall, and Queens and Staten Island have gone from among the lowest-scoring counties in the state to among the best, according to the Times’ report.

The story mentions in passing that the results of the 2007 federal National Association of Educational Progress showed no significant progress among New York City’s eighth-grade students during Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure. Some experts claim that NAEP scores may be a better measure of overall student performance because it’s more difficult to engage in direct test preparation and thus less vulnerable to score inflation.

But Klein dismissed those concerns, telling the Times that the state tests are a valid measure of learning:

You can’t pass the math test if you don’t know how to do algebra, and you can’t pass the English Language Arts test in the fourth grade if you can’t read the paragraph or understand the paragraph, he said. If that’s what test prep is about, teaching people to read and understand paragraphs, that’s what I think education is about.

Some of the story’s data concerning the achievement gap — the gulf that separates test scores of white and Asian students from those of their black and Hispanic classmates — remains controversial. The gap between the rates of students in each demographic group passing state achievement tests has been halved since Bloomberg took office, according to the Times’ analysis of state data. But the gap in actual scores has shrunk only slightly, because all demographic groups have posted gains. Klein responded to the data, saying:

You don’t want to see achievement gaps narrow because white kids do less well, he said. Our job is to get all kids to basic proficiency and then continue to move them forward, and I think we can do that.

Some have said the administration isn’t moving quickly enough. Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, believes that the actual gap in scores remains unacceptably high. And NAEP data suggests that New York state’s achievement gap is barely closing and is equal to the nation’s average achievement gap.