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Bloomberg boasts about outsized gains, but critics are cautious

Mayor Bloomberg struck a boastful tone as he and Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced modest gains in city students’ test scores today.

Bloomberg focused on the improvement in city students’ scores relative to the test score gains across the state. He said the improvements were especially notable given changes to the state tests to make them tougher.

“The only way to measure how students are doing year in and year out is to compare them to how students are doing in the rest of the state,” Bloomberg said. “The good news is, no matter where the state sets the bar for proficiency, New York City students continue to achieve at higher levels each time.”

City students’ average test scores went up by 1.5 percentage points in reading and 3.3 points in math, more than scores statewide. But the city’s reading and math scores still lag about 10 points behind schools in the rest of the state, city officials acknowledged.

Nonetheless, Bloomberg said the small jumps in city students’ math and English scores amounted to an “enormous difference.”

To underscore the upward trajectory, Bloomberg even presented a graph of how students would have performed according to the standards that were in place before last year. The graph projected that under the old scoring system, which the state discarded last year as inflated, 86.7 percent of students would be considered proficient in math and 72.7 percent of students would be considered proficient in reading.

Howard Everson, a professor at the Center for Advanced Study in Education at CUNY and chair of the Technical Advisory Group, a committee that guides the state’s testing program, said that the gains under the new standards were small, they can be viewed as statistically significant because of the sheer number of students tested. He also said he trusted the state’s ability to track score trends even as the tests’ length, composition, and proficiency standards change.

But critics of the Bloomberg administration’s school policies cautioned against reading too much into the new scores.

The Coalition for Educational Justice, a parent advocacy group, released a sobering statement on the scores, saying there was “no reason to celebrate” despite the gains.

“The Bloomberg Administration seems intent to celebrate this nominal change while our racial achievement gap remains as wide as ever and far too many of our students are left unprepared for college,” CEJ’s statement said.

And UFT President Michael Mulgrew cautioned in a statement that budget cuts and class size gains could undo any progress.

Walcott acknowledged that scores lagged for some students, especially in middle school English. “We still need to increase our focus on those years,” he said.

The scores surely mean something else to 4,808 public school students who will learn this month that they were required to attend summer school based on a mistaken assessment of test results the DOE made back in spring.

This year the city mistakenly sent 7,117 students to summer school based on preliminary test results that overstated the need for summer school. Of those students, only 2,309 would have been required to attend summer school anyway.

Walcott said students who were mistakenly required to attend summer school only received an extra benefit that they would have been denied if the city had accurately predicted their scores.

“I assure you that summer school was not a waste,” he said. “ If we had our way, even more students would benefit from extended learning and additional time in summer school.”

It is hard to hold a press conference about test scores lately without talk of cheating, which has come to light in a number of high-profile districts. Bloomberg said the high stakes attached to the city’s test scores, which are used to assess schools and teachers in addition to students, did not make New York City teachers and principals more likely to game the tests.

“To the best of my knowledge there is no evidence or even allegations of widespread cheating,” he said. “The trouble is, you could have level after level after level, and all it does is add expense, which we cannot afford, and confusion.”

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