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Meaningless? Cause for celebration? Interpretations of New York’s 2015 test scores run the gamut

Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Ed Reed for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio

New York state’s latest test scores are completely meaningless — or the key to understanding whether any students are learning.

The city’s modest gains are the result of a year of rolling back the education policies of the Bloomberg administration, adding teacher training time, and empowering district leaders — or they demonstrate just why those policies are doomed to fail.

On test-score day, it all depends who you talk to.

To be sure, there are many ways to interpret the city’s scores, which increased by one percentage point in math and two points in English this year, continuing a slow climb while revealing persistent disparities. But for the elected officials, charter-school leaders, and big-spending advocacy groups with a stake in New York’s education debates, the results are used to bolster almost any argument.

At a press conference at P.S. 19 Asher Levy in the East Village, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the continued progress was cause for celebration, and credited his administration’s focus on extra time for professional development for teachers and a shake-up of the education department’s structure with contributing to the gains.

“The building blocks that we put in place all are contributing and will contribute much more going forward to the progress we’ll make,” de Blasio said, calling it a “great day for New York City.”

Last week, the mayor played down the relative importance of state test results, and Chancellor Carmen Fariña has tried to reduce the pressure schools feel to rapidly improve scores. But de Blasio will also soon have to win over a governor and state legislature that gave him just one year of control over the school system, and officials took pains Wednesday to link the increases to their new education policies while also acknowledging longer-term gains.

“We will continue to make superintendents accountable for what happens in their districts, principals accountable for what happens in their schools and teachers accountable for what happens in their classrooms,” Fariña said, referencing the recent restructuring.

Meanwhile, Karen Magee, president of the New York State United Teachers, which encouraged parents to opt their children out of the state tests, said “it would be a huge mistake to read anything into these test results.” Especially since one in five eligible students statewide declined to take the tests this year, the scores “aren’t worth the paper they are printed on,” she said.

Another union leader, Michael Mulgrew, of the city’s United Federation of Teachers, found some value in the results.

“We’re seeing progress, particularly in reading, thanks to a city administration that really cares about student learning, increased availability of appropriate curriculum and training, and hard work by teachers and students,” Mulgrew said in a statement.

Eva Moskowitz, the CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools and a political rival of de Blasio’s, found different reasons to celebrate. Of the 3,000 Success students who took the state tests, most of whom are black and Hispanic, 93 percent passed the math exams and 68 percent passed the English exam, beating city averages for white students by roughly 40 and 20 points, respectively.

“These results prove that the educational inequality that traps thousands of New York City’s children of color in poverty can be eliminated, if only our elected officials muster the political will,” Moskowitz said.

Allies of Moskowitz were more pointed in trying to tie de Blasio’s policies to the continued poor performance of black and Hispanic students.

“Unless Mayor de Blasio reverses policies that deny students access to high-quality schools, he risks presiding over a failing schools crisis defined by educational inequality,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, executive director of Families for Excellent Schools, which organizes parent rallies for Success Academy.

The reaction from other charter advocates was measured. The charter sector often points to its students’ performance on state tests as evidence for why the city needs more charter schools. This year, the city’s charter schools outperformed the citywide averages in math but lagged in English, and both numbers improved by a smaller margin than the city’s.

Dave Levin, founder of the KIPP network of charter schools, noted that its overall proficiency rates exceeded the city’s growth by three points in English and four points in math.

“While we are proud of these academic gains, we have more work to do,” Levin said in a statement.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, noted that charter schools bested district schools when comparing the results of black and Hispanic students.

“While proficiency rates are still not as high as they need to be in charter or district schools,” he said in a statement, “this is definitive proof that charter schools serve a critical role in meeting the needs of traditionally underserved populations and it shows why they are in such high demand from families in long underserved communities.”

Meanwhile, Advocates for Children of New York called the proficiency rates for the city’s English language learners — 4 percent in English, under 15 percent in math — “devastating.” Proficiency rates among students with disabilities actually declined slightly in math, the organization noted, and achievement gaps between those students and their peers in general education were growing.

“This is unacceptable,” it said in a statement.

Also up for debate was how to interpret the state’s acknowledgement that 20 percent of eligible students statewide opted out of taking the tests, up from 5 percent a year ago. State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia stressed that while 1.1 million students were eligible to take the tests, and about 200,000 did not, the state still had 900,000 valid test scores — valuable information for teachers and schools.

Others, including supporters of the tests, said the huge opt-out numbers could call the usefulness of the results into question.

The varying numbers of test-takers “creates an apples-to-oranges comparison” between years, said Steven Sigmund, who heads High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that support the New York’s implementation of the Common Core standards.

Derrell Bradford, whose organization NYCAN is part of High Achievement New York, said students who took the tests were still in a better position to get the help they need to succeed.

“Everyone else just has a best guess about college and career readiness,” Bradford said.

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