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27th June

First Published in The New York Sun, June 27, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

The City Council’s education committee,chaired by Eva Moskowitz, is holding a public hearing today on the unprecedented increases in scores on this year’s standardized tests.

There are plenty of questions to be raised. Educators are usually — and rightly — suspicious of extraordinary increases and decreases in scores.
Speaking on WNYC radio just after the scores were released, Robert Tobias, who once headed the testing and evaluation division of the old Board of Education,called this year’s test results “incredible.” When pressed by the show’s host, Brian Lehrer, who asked, “Do you mean they’re not credible?” Mr.Tobias diplomatically stuck with his original wording, although his meaning was unmistakable.

Now a professor at New York University, Mr. Tobias is among those asked to testify today. This list also includes Lori Mei, Mr.Tobias’s successor at the city’s Education Department [and his former assistant].
Because the mayor is highlighting the scores on television commercials to aid his re-election bid, these results have special significance.

When state reading test results were released last month, the mayor held a press conference at a school that had a remarkable 47-point increase in the number of students reading at grade level.This was not the first time schools with unusual increases were the subject of press conferences.

A former special commissioner of investigation of the New York City school district, Edward Stancik, routinely targeted such schools for investigation. In a 1999 incident that received national attention, he identified 52 school employees — including teachers and principals — who he alleged cheated on tests in 32 schools.

I won’t defend Stancik, who died in 2002, or his record. He was quick to call a press conference to make accusations, but slow to follow up and prove his case.

But how did he decide where to look? He targeted schools with the largest increases in their scores.

The position of special commissioner still exists. It was created to give the mayor a degree of oversight over an independent Board of Education. But now the mayor himself controls the schools.

While Mr. Bloomberg’s appointee, Richard Condon, is a fine and able fellow, the new structure suggests that some other entity, independent of the mayor, should provide this essential oversight.

Ensuring independent investigations would certainly be appropriate for Ms. Moskowitz’s committee to consider. In fact, she should ponder whether testing and evaluation should be removed from the Department of Education entirely in order to reassure stakeholders of the veracity of the results — regardless of who is mayor.

Which is exactly why this hearing is being held. How did the scores go up so dramatically, so well timed to afford the mayor the most benefit as the election season heats up?

In 2000, as Ms. Moskowitz has pointed out, huge declines in sixth-grade math scores — not all that dissimilar to some of the increases this year — were rejected by officials of the old Board of Education, who claimed that they identified anomalie in the results. Who checks for anomalies when the scores go up? There are lots of gray areas when administering, grading, and calibrating tests. These are not tests based on the number of correct answers, expressed as a percentage score. We are talking about children reaching some point called “grade level.” Where that point lies is not written in stone.

Moving the number of correct answers needed to achieve “grade level” up or down by even one question can move thousands of students into a different category.

Further complicating matters is the fact that two groups of tests are now administered to city schoolchildren,one by the state in grades four and eight, and another by the city in grades three, five, six, and seven. The state tests are usually given more credence, simply because they are perceived to be further from the repercussions of poor scores. Next year, all of the tests in all of the grades will be administered by the state.

This is convenient, because it affords a standard of comparison by which to judge our own schools, the yardstick of the rest of the state.

The consistently high scores this year, from Suffolk to Syracuse, show that the city’s scores were very much tied to the rest of the state. This suggests that the good scores don’t result from any one local initiative.
It is better to see scores go up than go down. But a free and open discussion at the Moskowitz hearing may prevent us from falling victim to irrational exuberance, thinking that our children — or our politicians — are any smarter in 2005 than they were in 2004.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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