New York City Public School Scores Increase

Michael Bloomberg attributes the educational gains to the imposition of strict social-promotion rules:

Student Scores Climb Strongly Across the City (NYT | RSS)

New York City public school students achieved strong gains on the citywide reading and math tests this year. They were led by fifth graders, who posted extraordinary increases in the face of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s blunt threat to make them repeat the grade if they did poorly on either exam.

Mr. Bloomberg said the results proved that his decision to hold failing fifth graders back, ending the practice of social promotion, had been effective, raising achievement.

The mayor proclaimed the new scores, coming just two weeks after strong results on statewide reading tests for fourth graders, another testament to his stewardship of the school system – a three-year period that he hailed as “a new era of hope for our city’s public schools.”

The scores showed a steep drop in the number of fifth graders who scored too low to earn automatic promotion, to 5,636, or 8.9 percent of eligible pupils, from 14,695, or 22.4 percent, last year.

Officials said that struggling fifth graders had benefited from Saturday classes offered for the first time this school year. Pupils needing extra help and who did not attend the classes were almost twice as likely to fail to earn promotion as similar pupils who attended 21 or more Saturday sessions.

Over all, the number of fifth graders meeting standards rose 19.5 percentage points in reading, to 68.8 percent, and 15.2 points in math, to 53.7 percent.

Mr. Bloomberg first imposed his tougher promotion rules on third graders last year. And the number of third graders in danger of being left back also fell, but not as steeply. The city offered Saturday classes for third graders at only some schools across the city. The results fitted with numerous studies that have shown so-called promotional “gates” are more effective with older children, who can understand the consequences and make the extra effort.

“Our reforms are working,” Mr. Bloomberg declared, as he announced the results yesterday at the Education Department headquarters. “We have made more headway in improving students’ classroom performance than at any time in the city’s recent history.”

Good for them. Critics question whether the tests were easier, but it doesn’t seem to be a very strong argument:

This year’s citywide exams were published by the same companies as last year’s – Harcourt Assessment for reading and CTB/McGraw-Hill for math. But for security reasons, the city spent several million dollars to have the companies update the tests so that no questions were repeated from previous years.

Officials and representatives from the testing companies said that this year’s tests were of the same difficulty level and that questions were rigorously field-tested on New York City students to ensure their validity.

“Each year’s test is built to the same blueprint to measure the same content in the same manner, and test questions are written to the same statistical specifications in terms of difficulty,” said Mark Slitt, a spokesman for Harcourt.

Kelley Carpenter, a spokeswoman for CTB/McGraw-Hill, said, “These are legitimate and reliable results of a legitimate and reliable test.”

On the other hand, we’d need to examine the data closely to determine whether the improvements can indeed be attributed to the reforms. Are we comparing cohorts that have similar compositions, or does the current group of students enjoy advantages beyond the new policies? Do those who used the Saturday classes have other things going for them that could skew the results? Who are these students anyway? Such basic questions require answers before we heap abundant praise on Mayor Bloomberg. But the report is very encouraging.

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Robert Garcia Tagorda
About Robert Garcia Tagorda
Robert blogged prolifically at OTB from November 2004 to August 2005, when career demands took him in a different direction. He graduated summa cum laude from Claremont McKenna College with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and earned his Master in Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.