The reaction to New York raising its proficiency standards in reading and math has been swift, and rightly so. After years in which the Bloomberg administration and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein used rising test scores as evidence for the success of their educational policies, years in which critics who questioned the gains were ignored, and as the Obama administration has turned to New York’s example and made testing a key component of federal education policy, the results released last Wednesday are sobering.
In the city, the number of students scoring proficient in English fell from 69 percent last year to 42 percent this year. The math outcomes, 82 percent to 54 percent, are no better. Moreover, the results are even worse for minority students—the gap in test scores between black and white fourth graders has increased from 26.9 points in 2003 to 31.7 points. Similarly, fewer charter school students passed the proficiency bar compared to their counterparts enrolled in public schools. And beyond the revised standards, test scores for students from both the state and the city have stalled for the first time in years.
The results speak for themselves, but our policymakers appear to have not gotten the message. In 2008, Bloomberg’s hubris was astounding. Responding to a reporter questioning whether rising graduation rates were a result of inflation, he retorted, “I'm sort of speechless. Is there anything good enough to just write the story?” This week, meanwhile, Bloomberg has utilized the time-honored yardstick of relativism to argue that “proficiency” can mean different things, and has asserted that the new standards are simply a matter of raising the bar. “There is a lot of evidence we are making great progress,” he said. “Everybody basically knows this is working.”
If only. While Bloomberg is focused on damage control and appears keen to only appraise the potential of the newly rigorous exams, these results seriously call into question the emphasis on testing as the standard in education. Just as state and federal officials all too eagerly seized on the positive scores of years past to formulate policy, so too do they now need to take a clearheaded look and reflect on the central role of testing in today’s educational landscape.