The New York Bubble Bursts

For years, the citizens of New York City have been told its schools were rapidly improving as a result of “reforms” instigated by its billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein. Both claimed that dramatic increases in state test scores since 2006 were evidence that the city’s schools have improved.

The proof was supposedly in the numbers. In 2009, 82% of New York City students passed the state mathematics tests compared to only 57% in 2006. In 2009, 85% of New York City elementary and middle schools received an ‘A’ grade, compared to only 38% in 2008; 97% achieved an A or a B grade compared to 60% in 2007.

In Australia, Julia Gillard as Federal Education Minister praised the results and drew inspiration from the New York school accountability model for My School. She said that the changes introduced by Klein are “working” and produced “remarkable outcomes”. She sponsored Klein on a tour of Australia to tout his achievements. She said Klein was her hero.

Well, it has all been a mirage and now the bubble has burst.

Under pressure from critics and an independent review which said that the New York state tests were too easy and had inflated student results, state education officials adopted new standards for the tests this year. Passing scores were raised and the mathematics test was made less predictable and more material was added.

The new results were released last week. They show a stunning drop in the proportion of students who are proficient in mathematics and English. More than half of New York City’s public school students failed the English tests this year, and nearly half failed in maths.

Just 42% of all elementary and middle school students passed the English tests, compared to 69% last year and 54% passed the mathematics tests compared to 82% last year. The declines erase nearly all the gains made in the past four years.

The drop was staggering in some schools. At Public School 85 in the Bronx, there was a literal reversal in fortune, with proficiency on the 3rd grade maths test dropping from 81 to 18%. At the main campus of the Harlem Promise Academy, one of the city’s top-ranked charter schools, proficiency in 3rd grade maths dropped from 100 to 56%.

The results also show that the city’s progress in reducing the achievement gap between minority and white students was a mirage. The gap in pass rates between black and white students in mathematics nearly doubled from 17 to 30 percentage points from last year. On the reading exams, the difference widened from 22 to 30 percentage points.

The New York City education department has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on test preparation in schools. It has turned out to be a bad investment. Students were learning test-taking skills, and not truly learning reading or mathematics. One testing expert said:

A lot of the trend toward increasing test scores was not attributable to gains in actual student learning. There were a number of factors, the growth of test prep, the narrowing of the curriculum, the predictability of the tests. [ New York Times, 28 July 2010]

The results were used to decide which students were promoted to the next grade and who must attend summer school, which teachers and principals received bonuses for improved results, which teachers would receive tenure and which schools were closed because they were failing. All this was done on the basis of phony results.

The lesson from the New York debacle is that using school results to judge school quality, teacher quality and the future of schools is fraught with danger. It creates incentives to inflate school results. In New York, it was done by intensive test preparation, teaching to the test and reducing standards required for students to pass and for schools to achieve high grades. In other places, cheating and various ways of manipulating test results are also used to inflate test scores.

The New York City debacle shows what we can now expect with My School – ever improving test scores as schools learn to play the system by more and more practising for NAPLAN tests in class. State education officials are already putting pressure on schools to practice more for the tests. We can also expect pressures to reduce standards for the NAPLAN tests in the future.

The Liberal and National parties will make things even worse. A coalition government will extend national testing in literacy and numeracy to all year levels from Year 3 to 10. This is similar to the testing regime in the United States. Yet, it has demonstrably failed to improve student achievement. US national test results have remained largely flat for the past decade or more. The US has amongst the lowest average results of all OECD countries.

In contrast, the highest achieving country over the last decade – Finland – does not have national standardised tests and does not publish school results. It is about time Australia did some independent analysis and learning about testing and reporting school results. Let us learn from the best, not the worst.

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