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Why Does NYC Do Better in Some Subjects than Others?

Yesterday’s New York Times story on standardized testing in New York City in the Bloomberg/Klein era isn’t the story I would have told. Regular readers are aware that I’m more skeptical about the evidence regarding gains in student learning both in New York City and New York State. And I was especially disappointed that the Times provided a tool for ranking schools, even though the tool provided a modicum of context. As I’ve written recently, these school comparison tools aren’t very informative.

The article did, however, lead me to reflect on something I hadn’t considered before—New York City’s relative performance on different school subject tests. Elementary and middle school students in New York are tested annually in math, English Language Arts (ELA), science and social studies. Students in grades three through eight take the English Language Arts and math assessments. Science is tested in grades four and eight, whereas social studies is tested in grades five and eight.

We have paid a lot more attention to student performance in ELA and math than we have to student performance in science and social studies. The School Progress Reports accountability system devised by former accountability czar Jim Liebman and implemented in 2006-07 rests heavily on ELA and math test scores, and science and social studies scores have not been taken into account. Elementary and middle schools, their principals and their teachers undoubtedly have gotten the message: how students perform on the ELA and math tests matters; based on the criteria for the Progress Reports, not much else does.

The data below are from 2008, as 2009 scores in science and social studies have not yet been released. These data thus do not reflect the gains reported in New York City or New York State in 2009. To the extent possible, they hold constant the students taking the test—fourth- and eighth-graders in 2008, with the exception of social studies, which tests fifth-graders. The chart displays the percent of students achieving proficiency on a given test for New York City students and students in the remainder of New York State. (New York City students comprise about 35% of the state total in grades four and eight.)

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In 2008, New York City students performed well below other students in New York State on all four assessments at both grade levels. But the gaps were considerably larger in science and social studies than they were in ELA and math. In elementary grades, New York City students were 16 and 6 percentage points, respectively, behind their statewide peers in proficiency rates in ELA and math. In contrast, they were 17 percentage points behind other students across the state in science and social studies. The data are even more striking at the eighth-grade level. The percentages of New York City schoolchildren judged proficient in ELA and math were 20 and 15 percentage points, respectively, lower than other children in New York State. But New York City youth were 30 percentage points lower in science, and 36 percentage points lower in social studies.

One could argue that English Language Arts and mathematics are foundational skills, and that they should take precedence over other school subjects. In this view, it might be appropriate to emphasize these subject areas, and bringing students to proficiency in them, deferring investments in teaching other subjects until students have mastered reading and math. But I don’t think that this is the stated policy of the New York City Department of Education. A more plausible interpretation is that a high-stakes accountability regime in New York City emphasizing ELA and mathematics performance is influencing the relative attention given to different school subjects in the classroom, with the consequence that New York City students are much further behind their peers across the state in science and social studies than they are in ELA and math achievement

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