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21st December

First Published in The New York Sun, December 21, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

A lot is now riding on the examinations administered each year by the State of New York. The state uses these results to determine compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind law, and failure to maintain “annual yearly progress” determines whether students are permitted to transfer out of a school or receive supplemental tutoring at taxpayer expense and even whether a school should be closed.

The city uses these tests to determine the new “report card” grades of schools, upon which depend the continued employment of principals, performance bonuses given to principals and administrators, and now also school-wide bonuses given teachers. Using different criteria than the state, the city Department of Education also determines the continued existence of the school itself. It is not only conventional public schools that are graded and evaluated, but charter schools as well.

The test results have implications on the children themselves, some of whom will be forced to repeat a grade or attend summer school because they did poorly. Testing the testers - to make sure that the results and information upon which so much rides is fair and accurate - falls to the state board of regents.

Recently there has been a lot of criticism of the state testing program, some of it in these pages. The alarm comes from the growing gap between the results on the fourth and eighth grade math and English language arts tests administered by state and similar tests administered by the federal government. The latter are known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.

In fourth grade math, the state claims that 78% of students are proficient, as compared to just 43% on the NAEP. In the fourth grade ELA test, the state tells us that 68.6% are proficient as opposed to 36% on the NAEP.

The results for the eighth grade are similarly alarming, While the federal test suggests that not even a third of students are proficient on the ELA test, 32%, the state claims that nearly a half, 49.3% meet the standard. In math only 30% of eighth graders make the cut on the NAEP, while the state tells us that 54% do.

Much has recently been made of this gap, since the NAEP is considered the “gold standard” of testing. This confidence was reflected in an oped article which appeared last year in the Washington Post, co-authored by Mayor Bloomberg and former Florida governor Jeb Bush who wrote, “the well respected NAEP, which is administered in every state, should become an official benchmark for evaluating states’ standards.”

New York State’s education commissioner, Richard Mills, doesn’t agree and so informed the Regents, as outlined in materials prepared for their last meeting earlier this month.

“Given that NAEP and state tests, as well as the related standards, are prepared separately, it’s inevitable that national and state results will be different. In some states the difference is large, while it’s small in others. This presents an obvious question for the public and policy makers: which results are correct?”

Mr. Mills believes that the lower standards exhibited by the New York state/ NAEP gap, among the widest gaps in the nation, are more accurate and goes on to give a list of reasons. These include the remarkable claim that “teachers and students perceive that stakes are high for performance on the New York tests and students are encouraged to do their best. There are no consequences to a school or a student from NAEP.”

In other words Mr. Mills suggests that student performance on the NAEP is lower because the educators administering the tests are not taking them seriously. But my colleague, Elizabeth Green, recently reported in these pages that here in New York City 21% of those taking the test were given “accommodations,” usually in the form of extra time. This compares to just 5% of test-takers nationwide.

This is certainly evidence that the NAEP was taken very seriously indeed, and Mr. Mills should know better. He himself once served on NAEP’s governing board and is well aware of the high esteem in which these tests are held.

Other states have bitten the bullet and administer tests closely aligned with NAEP. Massachusetts is one such state, and the payoff for their integrity is the highest NAEP scores in the nation in both English language arts and math at both the fourth and eighth grade levels.

The Bay State achieved this by toughening up instructional standards so that their students could excel under any yardstick, a task for which Mr. Mills appears to have no stomach. That is because before students learn enough to pass, many will fail. The question is whether the will exists among the Regents to override him and force students to take the only route to high achievement, which is higher expectations.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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