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20th May

First Published in The New York Sun, May 20, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

We are experiencing the downside of mayoral control of education. The results of a high-stakes test have become mixed into an even higher-stakes endeavor: electoral politics.
Upon assuming control of the schools nearly three years ago, Mayor Bloomberg asked that he be held accountable for their performance. That is why there is so much hoopla over the increase in the fourth-grade test scores and why there are so many questions raised by his political opponents over those results.
Did the scores really go up by nearly 10 points, or has the test or grading been made easier? Has the test-taking population been manipulated in such a way to skew the results?

One of the mayor’s Democratic opponents, Rep. Anthony Weiner, has taken the most aggressive stance, suggesting that the mayor may be “fudging” the results. At the center of this controversy is a significant drop in the number of students taking this year’s test — nearly 10% fewer than last year. Are enrollments dropping so precipitously?
There is significance to the new policy of the State Education Department to exempt immigrant students learning English from testing for five years rather than two. Even if we accept the figure of the schools chancellor, Joel Klein, that only 900 additional students in New York City were granted a waiver this year, that alone makes the claim that this year’s gain represents the “highest” increase ever — the term “record gain” was used in the mayor’s press release — questionable. And it diminishes the gain to the same level as the one achieved in 2000. It is easy to bend the spin on the results by simply working the angles.
New Yorkers need to understand the nature of these tests. Our children are not 10% smarter on average. Of the students tested, nearly 10% more scored “at or above grade level,” a far more abstract concept. If it is determined, for instance, that answering 50 of 100 questions on the test brings a child to grade level, then the child scoring 50 is counted equally with the child who scored 100. This is why elation over the gains purportedly made by minorities is misplaced.
I have not analyzed all the data, but you don’t need an advanced degree in psychometrics from MIT to understand that if the majority of students below grade level are minorities, any increase in the numbers meeting this benchmark are bound to be overwhelmingly minority.This does not mean that the performance gap between whites and Asians on the one hand and blacks and Latinos on the other has been narrowed. It means that more children are achieving a minimal standard — a standard so low that most parents would be alarmed if they learned that their children were performing at this level.
If, in some perfect world, all New York’s public-school children were to achieve grade level, it would not erase the achievement gap between racial and ethnic groups. Students above grade level, including a much higher percentage of whites, could be gaining ground at twice the rate as minorities. Once you jump the fence, you are on the other side.
The mayor has made much of the “end of social promotion” as the engine that has driven this year’s gain. Others suggest that the new policy cooked the books by removing low-performing students from this year’s testing pool conveniently in time for the election. Both the mayor and the critics are wrong. As I have pointed out, the numbers of children held back last year and the previous year were almost identical. Moreover, of those failing thirdgraders promoted at the conclusion of last year’s “Summer Success Academy,” 84.1% failed to achieve grade level on this year’s fourth-grade test.
Gains made by the city’s fourth-graders — I will leave the discussion of the eighth-grade disaster to another day — follows the statewide pattern. Moreover, the other “big” New York cities, except for Buffalo, outpaced the gains in Gotham. Should we bring in the superintendent of Rochester, where there was a nearly 15% increase in the number of fourthgraders achieving grade level despite fewer resources?
The mayor and chancellor will continue trying to cast these results as a triumph, and the mayor’s political opponents will attempt to debunk their claims. But much of the ability of these opponents to cast doubt can be laid at the feet of Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein.They have created a new bureaucracy that makes the old Board of Education a paragon of openness and transparency. This gives greater credibility to the concerns of Mr. Weiner and others.
Knowing for sure how children are doing is more important than anyone’s political career. We have much at stake. Billions are being expended on programs that may be working, or could be spent on others that would work better. That’s why testing and the evaluation of test results should be taken from the Department of Education and given to an independent agency removed from politics or the interests of the stakeholders in the system other than the children. This would keep the mayor honest, whether his name is Bloomberg or Weiner or any of the other mayoral hopefuls.

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

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