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City scrambles to recalibrate its message to adjusted scores

Talking about the definition of academic proficiency yesterday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg struck a relativist note.

“Everybody can have their definition of what it means,” he said. Later, he added: “The last time I checked, Lady Gaga is doing fine with just a year of college.”

He even asked reporters not to refer to students who score above a Level 3 out of 4 as “proficient.”

The request follows new revelations that the bar for “proficiency” on state tests seems to have dropped over time, so that even though more students statewide were meeting it each year, they were not actually learning more. In response, the state this year took steps to tug standards higher.

Yet even as he called the definition of “proficient” into question, Bloomberg vigorously defended the administration’s tough accountability system, which uses the Level 1 to 4 system to determine which students move on to the next grade and as one piece of schools’ report card grades.

Bloomberg has also used rising numbers of students scoring at Level 3 as a referendum on his education policies, arguing over and over again that because the rates are going up, the policies must work. Just last year, announcing that more students were “meeting or exceeding grade-level math standards,” a reference to more students scoring Level 3 or higher, Bloomberg called the results “proof” of New York City schools’ excellence.

“Our schools have made a remarkable turnaround since 2002,” he said in a press release. “New York City is now proof that you shouldn’t have to choose between living in a big city and sending your children to excellent public schools.”

For years, city officials also rebuffed critics who suggested that rapid gains might not represent increases in student learning. “I’m sort of speechless,” Bloomberg said in 2008, after GothamSchools editor Elizabeth Green (then a reporter at the New York Sun) asked whether rising graduation rates might reflect inflation. “Is there anything good enough to just write the story?”

Now that state officials have acknowledged that test scores have inflated — and they’ve adjusted them accordingly — the city is scrambling to adjust its message.

In one step, they are referring to the statewide re-calibration, which aims to offset years of apparently dropping standards, as a hiking of the bar.

“Whether the new expectations will instigate all of us to try harder, one can only hope,” Bloomberg said.

City officials are also defending their accountability measures — like the grades given to schools, based strongly on test results — by arguing that the measures don’t look at proficiency rates but rather progress from year to year. Indeed, the report card formula weights progress more heavily than how many students score at a level 3, the state’s minimum bar for proficiency.

“The virtue of our accountability system is that it’s not tied to a line in the sand,” Klein said yesterday. “Level 3 is simply a single line,” Klein said. “We will look at what we’ve always looked at — not at how many are level 3, but at how much progress they have made.”

Even that may prove problematic this year, since city schools’ raw scores on the tests flattened out this year as well. Anticipating the changes, city officials announced earlier this year that schools will be graded on a curve for next year’s progress reports.

Still, critics of the city’s accountability system, like teachers union chief Michael Mulgrew, said yesterday’s scores call into question not just the mayor’s record but also the wisdom of using test scores as a measure of school improvement.

“In light of the state’s more rigorous standards, the DOE’s success in raising pupil proficiency has turned out to be illusory,” Mulgrew said.

State officials defended the city against charges that the gains it has boasted are imaginary. In an interview this week, State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said that the city’s efforts under Bloomberg and Klein prevented the shock of the score re-setting from being even more severe.

“If you haven’t noticed that the city school system is improving, then you’re walking around with blinders,” Tisch said.

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