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24th October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 24, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

When is good news bad news? When the good news make it a lot mor difficult to reach your ultimate goal That’s the position that Mayo Bloomberg and Schools Chancello Joel Klein find themselves in. 

    Scores on the 4th- and 8th-grad statewide math tests were release earlier this week. These were th tests administered last spring, whil city schools were still using th “old” curricula. 
    Fourth-grade scores increase this past year by 14.8%. To put thi in perspective, during the previou four years, the scores crept up by lit tle more than an average of a half percent a year. The increase is s dramatic that it seemingly leave city schools nowhere to go but down. 

    This is the reason why the chan cellor released a statement tha seemed extremely subdued, consid ering the magnitude of the increase “While I am gratified by the test re sults released today for 4th- an 8th-graders in New York City, I mus emphasize that it is hard to tell th true significance of any one set o results in isolation. We must alway look at results in comparison over number of years. Only through com parison can we truly measure th progress we’re making.”

    It is comparisons that Mr. Klein must now try to avoid. 

    You could be sure that if this increase were to take place a year from now, once his “uniform curriculum” was firmly in place, Mr. Klein would be crowing so loud that you’d hear him from Tottenville to Co-op City. 
    This is probably the reason why the announcement of the scores was embargoed for weeks. The results were delivered to the schools nearly a month ago, but not made public until this past Tuesday. I would suspect that during this time the chancellor was feverishly lobbying for the scores to be scrapped or officially questioned, as has happened on occasion in the past. However, the embattled state education commissioner, Richard Mills, reeling from one testing problem after another, expressed his full confidence in the results. This puts Mr. Klein in a bind. 

    Both Mr. Klein and the mayor have been relentlessly badmouthing the instructional status quo. While few of us are in any way satisfied with the performance of the public schools in New York City, our system is currently among the best in the nation’s big cities. When the first results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress testing — a national sample of how America’s cities are doing in comparison with each other — were recently released, Deputy Chancellor Diana Lam actually tried to claim credit for New York’s chart-topping performance, even though the test was administered six months before she came to town. 
    If we’re not really doing as badly as we thought, improving performance will be that much harder. No one believes that the new curriculum can even remotely replicate a near-15% increase in 4th-grade scores. Merely holding on will be an
enormous accomplishment that many astute observers feel is impossible. This will hardly cast Mr. Klein’s already questionable curriculum choices in the best light. 

    In truth, increases of this magnitude simply don’t happen. There is no logical explanation of this jump other than problems with the scoring of the test. According to experts, tiny discrepancies in the “norming” of the tests, that is, converting the raw score into a reflection of a child’s competence, could account for huge swings. For example, on a 50-question test, the points need to be determined that demarcate the four levels of competency. Those at Levels 3 and 4 are said to meet or exceed the standards, in other words, “pass” the test. However, is the point of passing getting 20 questions correct, 30 questions correct, or maybe 31 or 32? That is a key and very complex decision. A movement of one or two questions could easily account for a swing of 5% or 10%. 

    One of Mr. Klein’s problems is that he has been too accepting of the serious problems emanating from the state Education Department in Albany. It is clear that there are real concerns surrounding testing issues, and equally troublesome questions about the evaluations surrounding the federal No Child Left Behind law. 
    While it is true that education is a state function, and that what New York City does is controlled by the state, it doesn’t change the reality that by dropping the ball on any number of issues, it will be our city’s children who will suffer from the failings of the educrats at the state level. 

    The imperative of objective evaluation of our children’s learning is now written into federal law. Without tests, the system will totally collapse. But Albany is so mismanaging all aspects of testing that it has given enormous momentum to the antitesting forces in the state. 

    The person who should have been yelling the loudest is Mr. Klein. Whether it is the state’s botching of the Regents exams, the anomalies in the 4th- and 8th-grade tests, or the insane criteria to determine the schools covered by No Child Left Behind, in the end he will be left cleaning up the mess. 

    New York City should be taking the lead. For example, we should be advocating for major reforms in teacher certification, now a state function. Thousands of teachers leave the system, frustrated by licensing requirements that bear no relationship to classroom reality. 

    Where is the dialogue that should be taking place asking that the state move to “value-added” testing? If we were to adopt this innovative methodology, not only would we really be able to identify which children are on track, but we would also be able to more fairly determine which schools, and more importantly, which teachers, are getting results. This could be the foundation of a fair “merit pay” system that even the teachers unions could buy into. At the very least, Mr. Klein should be insisting that the state’s 4th- and 8th-grade test devices conform to those in use in the other grades here.

    Math scores will more than likely decrease next year, and Mr. Klein will then, finally, be screaming bloody murder.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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