Clearly we have a problem.
According to the standardised test scores that came out last week only 26% of 3rd-8th grade students in New York City are reading at grade level. Only 30% of them are up to proficiency in math. The achievement gap between Black and Latino students compared with their white counterparts deepened, with only 15% and 19% respectively meeting the state proficiency standards in math. Those are considered all time lows.
Despite the fact that NYC almost matched the performance of New York State overall, let’s ignore Mayor Bloomberg’s spin factory and acknowledge that this indicates a serious issue. The United Federation of Teachers seems to agree, and blames the NYC Department of Education (DOE) for the lower scores:
Testing became harder this year due to New York State’s implementation of the “Common Core”standards: a curriculum designed to produce college prepared students who have mastered the skill of critical thinking. That’s all well and good, but according to many teachers’ organisations the Department of Education didn’t do its part when it came to preparing teachers to help their students rise to the new standards. From the United Federation of Teachers:
Some schools will in September finally have new curriculums aligned to these standards. But, unfortunately, some schools will struggle because the Department of Education under Mayor Bloomberg refused to mandate that schools have a standards-aligned curriculum and had no plans to provide one until this union pressed the issue publicly.
The DOE just doesn’t get it. They need to learn the principles of Education 101: that the DOE needs to provide every teacher with a Common Core-aligned curriculum with scope and sequence in order for teachers to create lesson plans from that curriculum. Only in that way can we help students learn the subject matter on which they will be assessed.
These new Common Core standards weren’t a surprise. They didn’t sneak up on the DOE in the dead of night. They’ve known for two years that this was coming, which left them enough time to throw up a full bilingual ad campaign warning that the tests were going to be more difficult yet somehow not enough time to make sure that all schools in the city had the necessary curriculums to pass the new test. There were schools in poorer areas of the city where no students (as in zero. zilch. nada.) passed the math exams. One principal at a school in East Harlem watched her students’ English and Math proficiency scores drop from 33% to 7% and 46% to 10% respectively. It’s likely safe to assume that her’s isn’t the only school serving poor, minority students seeing that drastic of a plunge.
Criticisms of standardised testing in New York City aren’t new. In prior years when the scores were higher it was argued that the tests weren’t actually measuring a student’s ability to do anything more than regurgitate information after a school year of cramming and rote memorisation. My fourth grade classroom where we learned nothing but creative writing, long division, and the history of the Lenni Lenape tribe would not fly during this era of Teaching To The Test, with the sole purpose of meeting those standardised benchmarks. Of course, it’s hard to do that when you don’t have the curriculum to do it with and a new test with some questionably unfair material.
As someone who works with 5th and 6th grade minority students who have scored in the top 10% on their standardised tests in past years I can tell you this: as you move beyond the skills of powering through math problems and underlining sentences to answer reading comprehension questions you can see where the deeper education stops. The arts of essay and creative writing have seemingly vanished with Teaching To The Test, along with those critical thinking skills the Common Core hopes to inspire. And those students who do buck the trend and get a bit creative on their standardized tests (like I did in the 2nd grade when I wrote a full, rambling story about World War 2 as an answer for a relatively simple standardised test essay question) are usually punished for it in their scores (my mother was told I needed to be in a remedial reading class).
For a variety of reasons standardised tests –Common Core or not– are probably not the best judge of overall student intelligence. There are parents who believe that so strongly, and are so tired of the constant testing that they had their children boycott the tests this year in protest. That said, if we’re going to insist on using standardized testing as a measure then we should at least be making sure that students have the tools necessary to succeed. Not only do these scores help place children in gifted and talented programs within the public school system, they can help parents get their kids into charter schools, or programs that might help them enter into independent schools like Oliver Scholars or TEAK. Low test scores don’t only reflect badly on the DOE, they can actually limit and hinder an otherwise bright child’s options to escape the DOE.
So In a week where we combine a new achievement gap low with finding out that the city’s solution to lack of middle-class Pre-K access is having parents take out student loans for their four year olds, one really has to wonder where public education in New York City is heading and how far Black and Latino students are going to have to fall before anything is done.