In New York City, the Issue Is Reading, Not Gaps Between High and Low Performers

By 08/16/2010

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On Monday morning, two New York Times reporters captured the front page with their worries about the racial education gap in New York City, despite clear signs of gains in minority graduation rates. The reporters provide the reader with a host of mostly misleading state-provided test-score data, because the State of New York  mis-constructed the proficiency scales on its statewide tests, thereby rendering interpretation of scores over time virtually impossible.

Since the state department of education not only designs tests but constructs numerous other policies that affect operations both in New York City and elsewhere in the state, it is of interest to learn whether New York City students do as well or better than students across the rest of the State of New York.   If one wants to assess the work of  Bloomberg and Klein, the relevant time period is between 2003 to 2009, the years for which solid data are available from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the only reliable test available.

If one looks at both city and state performance of 8th graders on the NAEP math and reading assessments, one discovers that math gains in New York City outstripped the gains in the state as a whole, and the reading gains, while dismal, are actually very slightly better than elsewhere in the state:

Table 1

The data we have displayed don’t divide folks into racial and ethnic categories, but they do show the shifts for both high and low performing students.  Those at the bottom are making at least the same rate of gain in math as the rest. And the reading story is equally bad for everyone.

There is no miracle in New York City, but the New York Times account of the city school’s performance ranges between confusing to fundamentally misleading. The basic issue is reading, not favoring one group over another.

Paul E. Peterson is a professor of government at Harvard University and is the author of Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning.

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