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Five things to look for in this year's state test scores, out today

When state test scores are released in about half an hour, it will happen solely by press release. For the second year in a row, state education officials are not holding a press conference to announce the year’s results.

Nor does the city appear to be planning to tout its scores. Last year, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott held a press conference to highlight the fact that city students’ scores, while low, had increased more than those of students in the rest of the state. But there’s nothing on Bloomberg’s or Walcott’s public schedule for today about the scores, and the Department of Education hasn’t informed reporters about any surprise additions.

Quiet from the city and state usually does not bode well for increases in test scores, an annual announcement until the state raised proficiency standards in 2010 and scores across the state dropped precipitously. It’s also unusual that schools are not getting their scores before the state releases them to the public. But rather than read the tea leaves, we’ve prepared a crib sheet for the news that will come later today.

Here are five things we’ll be looking at when the scores come out:

  • What they say about students’ stamina. Next year, state test questions will be tied to new learning standards, known as the Common Core, and so the questions themselves are likely to be more challenging. But this year’s tests changed mostly in length, with students in elementary and middle school sitting for twice as long as they did last year. Teachers and parents worried about students’ ability to retain focus for so long, and some teachers also reported that students were thrown by questions that covered unfamiliar content or took an unfamiliar format — likely ungraded questions that the state will use as it toughens tests next year. The scores that come out today could confirm — or refute — the teachers’ and parents’ fears.
  • How city students fared compared to students across the state, and in particular to students in four other large cities that are often lumped in with New York City. As good news has become scarcer, Bloomberg has increasingly turned to comparisons to show that city students’ gains outpace students in the rest of the state — or, in 2010’s case, that their test score drops were smaller than in other cities. Last year, the city’s big takeaway was that its test score gains were larger than the rest of the state’s. But scores in New York City remained quite low, with just 44 percent of city students meeting the state’s proficiency standard in reading and 57 percent hit the math proficiency standard.
  • The relationship between scale scores and cut scores. Tests are graded by first calculating students’ raw scores, or the number of questions they got right. Then raw scores are assigned scores on a scale that allows them to be compared from year to year. Finally, the state sets “cut” scores marking the borders between each proficiency level. When the state raised the proficiency bar in 2010, it raised to the cut scores required to pass, so students whose raw or scale scores would have netted a passing score the year before fell short instead. It’s important to look at both scale scores and cut scores to understand how students performed compared to in previous years and also how the state wants students’ performance to be understood.
  • What happened to the racial achievement gap and middle school reading scores. Critics panned the city last year for not closing the score gap between black and Latino students and white and Asian students, who typically score higher. And Walcott himself said the city needed to work harder to increase middle school reading scores. Movement in those scores this year would suggest that the city had encouraged schools to focus on scores’ annual trouble spots. A lack of movement would suggest that the city is unable to move its most stubborn scores.
  • How the city fits today’s test scores into the Bloomberg administration’s school reform story. When scores dropped in 2010, Bloomberg painted the decline as a chance to “raise the bar” for city students. Last year, he used the scores to tout the city’s relative advances. This year’s narrative isn’t yet clear — but it is crucial to the mayor’s tenuous education legacy for the city to bend it in his favor.

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