Monday, June 23, 2008

Mayor Sees a Test Scores Triumph

Or is it a case of inflation of results?

By ELIZABETH GREEN, Staff Reporter of the Sun
June 23, 2008

Mayor Bloomberg will announce an education victory today: Test scores are up across the city, by double digits at some schools. But a cloud is already gathering, as education experts are raising the possibility that these gains and others across the country could suggest score inflation and not real learning gains.

The scores being released today show a nine-percentage-point gain in math citywide versus last year, and a seven-point gain on the reading test. The gains are even more remarkable when viewed over the six-year timeline since Mr. Bloomberg took office: Three-quarters of city students now score proficient at math, up from 37% in 2002.

This year's gains were larger than the increases statewide, though smaller than in other cities, such as Buffalo, Rochester, and Yonkers.

Mr. Bloomberg is scheduled to announce the results at a press conference at P.S. 175 in Harlem this afternoon.

The mayor has often greeted test-score increases as evidence that he is fulfilling his promise to improve public schools. "I'm happy, thrilled, ecstatic," he said last year, announcing gains on the state math test.

Since then, concerns have grown that rises in state test scores in New York and elsewhere do not reflect real improvement, but rather "inflations" — either due to easier tests, deliberate cheating, or more subtle "gaming" that helps students perform better without actually having to learn more material.

Local education experts last September called for an audit of the state test after a respected national test showed the city posting significant gains in only one academic area, despite reports from the state test showing larger gains across the board.

A report grading state tests recently delivered New York State a C+. And a study by the teachers union found that a reading test dropped in difficulty by as many as six grade levels between 2004 and 2005.

The concern in New York follows a pattern around the country.

"Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us," a new book by a testing expert and Harvard Graduate School of Education professor, Daniel Koretz, calls score inflation the "dirty secret" of high-stakes testing.

Although some test-score gains represent the real, hard work of teachers and students, others "are entirely illusory," Mr. Koretz writes.

A recent study of Texas schools is the latest in a string of academic observations on the effects of high-stakes testing. The study concludes that educators are "gaming" their state tests by preventing low-achieving students from taking them and teaching only material they expect to appear on the test, rather than the wider span of material tests are supposed to represent.

A study by a pscyhometrician and professor at the University of Iowa, Andrew Ho, found that two-thirds of state tests are publishing higher gains than a national test.

New York is not immune from the phenomenon, according to another researcher studying state tests, Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

"We've got great rhetoric and great pressure on teachers to teach to the test, but at the end of the day when Albany reports out the share of kids that are proficient, we can't really trust their claims, especially when put up against the federal definition of proficiency," Mr. Fuller said.

The State Education Department defended its tests.

"All of New York's tests are checked many times to be sure that a score this year means the same next year," a spokesman, Tom Dunn, said in a statement. "The only way for a student to improve performance is by learning the curriculum — reading, writing, and math."

At the city Department of Education, where scores are used to help determine school closures, teacher and principal salaries, and promotion decisions from one grade to another, a senior official who oversees testing, Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, said she has confidence that state tests are reliable.

Ms. Bell-Ellwanger said the department takes into account the potential errors of testing by looking at trends rather than individual data points.

Shown the results, the education historian Diane Ravitch noted that scores were up statewide, and that some cities had even larger gains than New York City.

"What this suggests to me is that the state lowered the bar and it is easier to pass the exams," Ms. Ravitch said.

She said the lesson of the results should be that the state "needs an independent agency to conduct the state tests and report on results."

The results will have an effect on schools. Teachers who signed up for a pilot project on merit-based performance bonuses could become eligible to receive them. Schools teetering on the edge of a failing report card grade could be pushed to another side.

Students will also be affected.

Yesterday, the principal at I.S. 349 in Bushwick section of Brooklyn, Roy Parris, said that his school's high test scores — he said they shot up about 10 points in both math and reading — mean that only one seventh-grader of 155 total is eligible to be held back this year, down from about 15 seventh-graders last year.

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