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27th June
2008

First Published in The New York Sun, June 27, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

When one digs into the testing data released by the State Education Department earlier this week, one comes up with some surprises. The huge across the board gains in the statewide math and English language arts tests would suggest that all children should be doing better. But one group seems to be adrift when it comes to the English test.

Curiously, it is not the low performers, special education students, minorities, English language learners, or other “at risk” groups that is lagging behind. Rather, despite the soaring scores, it is the group of highest performers that is shrinking.

This was discovered by the blogger, Eduwonkette. At the beginning of the Bloomberg era 15.6% of all fourth grade pupils scored at Level 4, the highest level of achievement on the state test. On the latest test, the figure had plummeted to just 5.8%. Eduwonkette shows that the trend doesn’t stop at fourth grade.

In 2006, 8.7% of fifth graders scored a Level 4 on the English exam. This is now down to 4.3%. Sixth grade lost even more top students, down from 7.1% to only 2.2%. In seventh grade the percentage of Level 4s declined from 4.7% to 1.6%.

With published scores on the test reaching stratospheric heights, and educrats high-fiving each other at press conferences, how could this be?

If one understands how the results of the tests are expressed, one can begin to theorize just what is happening. The figures that one hears so often are the percentage of students at or above grade level, the total at levels three and four. This is a modest bar.

It doesn’t matter whether a student aces the test, or just manages to get the minimum number of answers correct to barely earn a low Level 3 score. In the published results, both students are equal. In other words, as the percentage of Level 4s dropped to 5.8% from 15.6%, the lower performing Level 3s increased to 55.5% from 36.8%.

“It appears,” according to Eduwonkette, “that schools are focusing on pushing lower performing students over the passing mark, and shortchanging high-achieving students in the process. In Bloomberg’s New York, as it turns out, a rising tide does not lift all boats.”

This is a serious charge, one that cannot be ignored. Within the past few days the Thomas B. Fordham Institute issued its report, “High Achieving Students in the Era of NCLB,” which suggests:

* Teachers are much more likely to indicate that struggling students, not advanced students, are their top priority.

* Low-achieving students receive dramatically more attention from teachers.

* Teachers believe that all students deserve an equal share of attention.

* Most teachers, at this point in our nation’s history, feel pressure to focus on their lowest-achieving students.

The Fordham Institute is unwilling to point the finger at NCLB and notes that the introduction of accountability systems even before the dawn of NCLB, such as New York’s, resulted in similar outcomes. What this suggests is that if one bases one’s measurement of success on merely pushing the lowest performing students over the low bar of “grade level,” don’t be surprised if other children get left behind in unexpected ways.

So here in New York, we have seen almost all of the attention paid to the gifted and talented programs focused on the “fairness” of the admissions process to “insure diversity” rather than maximizing participation and improving instruction for bright students. Once a child gets through the hurdles of admission, don’t expect any extra financial resources to sent in his or her direction.

Complicating all of this is concern that the state tests themselves are inflated, producing results that misstate the true numbers of children at risk. New York State has already come under criticism for its inflated results, and this year’s scores only widens the gap. State Education Commissioner Richard Mills defends this grade inflation, opining that these are “two different tests.”

If standards mean anything, however, the results on the two sets of tests should align. In some states they do, such as in Massachusetts which now leads the nation in academic achievement according to last fall’s NAEP results.

If New York’s tests are inflated, the losers are the children who really need remediation but won’t get it because they seem to be doing better than they are. They join the “missing” Level 4s in the “mediocre middle,” the direction in which the school system is clearly heading.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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