More Evidence that School Comparisons Narrow the Curriculum

A new analysis of test data in New York State provides some interesting evidence that public comparisons of school results narrow the curriculum.

It suggests that schools in New York City are paying more attention to English and maths than science and social studies because these results are used to compare and grade schools.

The analysis compares test results in New York City, which publishes school results, with the results for the rest of New York State. It shows that the gap between New York City and the rest of the state is much larger in science and social studies than in English and maths.

It seems that schools in New York City have got the message from school comparisons: how students perform on the English and math tests matters and science and social studies do not matter as much.

Elementary and middle school students across New York State are tested annually in mathematics, English, science and social studies. New York City alone publishes school comparisons of test results in its School Progress Reports which also give an overall grade to each school. The School Progress Reports are based heavily on English and maths results and science and social studies results are not taken into account.

In 2008, New York City students performed well below other students in New York State on all assessments in English, maths, science and social studies in both 4th and 8th grade levels. However, the gaps were considerably larger in science and social studies than they were in English and maths. New York City fourth-grade students were 16 and 6 percentage points, respectively, behind their statewide peers in the proportion of students achieving proficiency level in English and maths. In contrast, they were 17 percentage points behind other students across the state in science and social studies.

The evidence is even stronger at the eighth-grade level. The percentages of New York City schoolchildren judged proficient in English and math were 20 and 15 percentage points, respectively, lower than other children in New York State. In contrast, New York City students were 30 percentage points lower in science, and 36 percentage points lower in social studies.

The analysis concludes that the most plausible interpretation of these results is that a high-stakes accountability regime in New York City emphasizing English and mathematics performance is influencing the relative attention given to different school subjects in the classroom. As a consequence, New York City students are much further behind their peers across the state in science and social studies than they are in English and maths achievement

The analysis was conducted by Aaron Pallas, Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and former statistician at the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education. It is published on the Gotham Schools blog

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