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City scores flat on national exam, though up over last decade

Once again, New York City’s scores on the “nation’s report card” are flat, though the city has improved much faster than the state over the last decade.

The biggest jump was in fourth grade reading, where the average scale score of New York City students improved by 10 points between 2003 and 2013, compared to just a one-point gain across New York state, according to data released today from the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The tests are administered every two years to a sampling of fourth and eighth graders nationwide and are considered the most reliable indicator of student progress. Today’s data release breaks out data from New York City and other large urban districts from the state scores, which were released last month.

And though New York City has made significant gains over the last 10 years, other cities — including Los Angeles, Houston, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta — have been improving more quickly in some areas.

Between 2011 and 2013, New York City saw small score increases in fourth and eighth grade math and in eighth grade reading, but none were statistically significant. That closely mirrors the statewide results, which saw only one significant increase, in fourth grade math. It also puts New York City in the company of most other urban districts, since only eight of 21 districts had one or more scores increase significantly.

On a call with reporters, Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky emphasized that New York City remained at or near the top among districts with high populations of students receiving free and reduced lunch. He attributed the other cities’ increases to other states’ earlier embrace of the Common Core standards—which align closely with the skills NAEP measures—and new teacher evaluation models. (New York state is currently in the middle of implementing Common Core standards, and the city is executing its new teacher evaluation system this year for the first time.)

“I’d like to see our students rising at that same rate, and we’re clear on the investments we need to get to get there,” Polakow-Suransky said. “Part of where you see gains have been where big reforms have happened.”

He echoed remarks made by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who suggested in November that improvements in Tennessee and D.C. were due to their rapid reforms, including a shift to Common Core standards. State Education Commissioner John King and Chancellor Meryl Tisch offered a similar take when state scores were released, showing that reading scores across New York state haven’t seen real improvement in more than a decade.

“There is still work to do,” they said in a statement. “But last year New York’s Common Core assessments gave us a new baseline to work from.”

The teachers union pointed out that several other large urban districts saw bigger improvements in math scores, and that the city had made minimal progress closing the achievement gap between white, black, and Hispanic students.

“I’d say Michael Bloomberg has decided that his running of the schools has been a great triumph, and he’s not going to let facts get in the way,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said.

In 2011, about twice as many students were deemed proficient on the state’s standardized tests as met NAEP’s proficiency standard. That gap was one factor leading to the state’s adoption of tougher, Common Core-aligned tests that were first administered last spring and sent passing rates plummeting.

But Polakow-Suransky noted that the standards gap is now smaller than it’s ever been.

“It’s interesting to speculate on what kind of progress we’re going to see once the Common Core actually takes root,” he said.