Monday, August 16, 2010

Triumph Fades On Racial Gap In City Schools - NY Times

Triumph Fades On Racial Gap In City Schools
Published: August 15, 2010

Two years ago, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, testified before Congress about the city’s impressive progress in closing the gulf in performance between minority and white children. The gains were historic, all but unheard of in recent decades.

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Susan Walsh/Associated Press

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel I. Klein, right, testified before a House Education and Labor Committee hearing in 2008.

“Over the past six years, we’ve done everything possible to narrow the achievement gap — and we have,” Mr. Bloomberg testified. “In some cases, we’ve reduced it by half.”

“We are closing the shameful achievement gap faster than ever,” the mayor said again in 2009, as city reading scores — now acknowledged as the height of a test score bubble — showed nearly 70 percent of children had met state standards.

When results from the 2010 tests, which state officials said presented a more accurate portrayal of students’ abilities, were released last month, they came as a blow to the legacy of the mayor and the chancellor, as passing rates dropped by more than 25 percentage points on most tests. But the most painful part might well have been the evaporation of one of their signature accomplishments: the closing of the racial achievement gap.

Among the students in the city’s third through eighth grades, 40 percent of black students and 46 percent of Hispanic students met state standards in math, compared with 75 percent of white students and 82 percent of Asian students. In English, 33 percent of black students and 34 percent of Hispanic students are now proficient, compared with 64 percent among whites and Asians.

“The claims were based on some bad information,” said Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research group that studies education policy. “On achievement, the story in New York City is of some modest progress, but not the miracle that the mayor and the chancellor would like to claim.”

Reducing racial gaps in educational performance has been a national preoccupation for decades. But after substantial progress in the 1970s and ’80s, the effort has largely stalled, except for a brief period from 1999 to 2004, where there were some gains, particularly in reading, according to a report released this month by the Educational Testing Service, which develops standardized tests used across the country.

The achievement gap was also the main thrust of the No Child Left Behind law, which mandated annual testing for all students in grades three through eight and required school systems to track the performance of each racial and ethnic group, with the goal of bringing all children to proficiency by 2014.

New York City’s progress in closing its achievement gap on those tests drew national attention as a possible model for other urban school districts. It won praise from President George W. Bush as evidence that No Child Left Behind was working. In 2007, the city won a prestigious urban education prize from the Broad Foundation, which cited the city’s progress in narrowing the racial achievement gap.

But the latest state math and English tests show that the proficiency gap between minority and white students has returned to about the same level as when the mayor arrived. In 2002, 31 percent of black students were considered proficient in math, for example, while 65 percent of white students met that standard.

Experts have many theories, but no clear answers, about why national progress on closing the gap has slowed. They included worsening economic conditions for poor families and an increase in fatherless black households, social factors that interfere with students’ educational progress.

Mr. Klein said in an interview that he was not discouraged by New York City’s performance on the 2010 state tests, and that he still felt “awfully good” about improvements for black and Hispanic students, noting their rising graduation rates and college enrollments.

“I don’t think we claimed it was a miracle; certainly I don’t believe it was a miracle,” he said. “I think there are sustained steady gains here, and I think that’s important.”

Unbowed, Mr. Klein said the new test results reinforced some of his beliefs and policies: he said he would continue to close low-performing schools, for example, and would keep pushing to pay more to teachers who work in hard-to-staff neighborhoods or subjects, which the teachers’ union has resisted.

The bulk of Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Klein’s effort to overhaul the education system has been focused on the lowest-performing students. The city has closed 91 poorly performing schools, established about 100 charter schools and sent waves of new young teachers and principals into schools in poor neighborhoods.

Mr. Klein began to use test scores to measure schools’ performance, and joined with the Rev. Al Sharpton in forming the Education Equality Project in 2008 to promote good instruction and education reform for minority and poor children. “It is certainly what makes Joel Klein tick,” said Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, which advocates for progress on the issue. “And you can’t say that for everyone.”

The city has even tried to attack the deeper issue of how children are reared at home, by offering some families monetary incentives to go to the dentist for checkups, for example, or to maintain good school attendance. The three-year-old pilot project was ended in March after it showed only modest results.

For several years, data suggested that the city had seen improvements among all ethnic groups, including in graduation rates, which have risen about 14 percentage points for black and Hispanic students since 2005, and a national standardized test given every other year to a sampling of fourth and eighth graders.

Even so, the scores on the national test, considered tougher than the state tests, did not exactly show a mastery of material. Forty-nine percent of white students and 17 percent of black students showed proficiency on the fourth-grade English test in 2009, for example, up from 45 percent of white students and 13 percent of black students in 2003.

The city made no statistically significant progress in closing the racial achievement gap in that time, said Arnold Goldstein, a statistician at the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the national test. With few exceptions, including Charlotte, N.C., and Washington, D.C., the achievement gap on the national tests has remained constant in all major cities.

But the test scores that the mayor and the chancellor chose to highlight were the state standardized tests, and they built their entire system around it, with schools’ A-through-F grades, teachers’ bonuses and now tenure decisions dependent on how well their students performed on the tests.

By 2009, the passing rates of black students on English exams had narrowed to within 22 percentage points of white students’, and within 17 points on the math exams. And charter schools, which predominantly serve black students, were doing so well that one Stanford University researcher proclaimed that they had practically eliminated the “Harlem-Scarsdale” gap in math.

But skeptics argued that comparing passing rates was flawed because they did not account for whether a student passed by a little or a lot. In New York City, black and Hispanic students were far more likely to pass with scores barely above the minimum requirement, thereby masking the real difference in performance among groups.

The State Education Department recalibrated the scoring of the tests this year, raising the number of correct answers needed to pass and saying that the previous standards were not accurate measures of what students needed to know at each grade level. When that happened, the passing rates of white and Asian students dropped a little, but those of black and Hispanic students plummeted.

Asian students have generally performed better than white students on state math tests in the city, and about the same on English tests. Those gaps have remained fairly consistent over the years.

While the slow improvement of all groups is “still a success story,” Mr. Petrilli said, the achievement gap, which shows how different groups perform relative to one another, still means that most black and Hispanic students will be at a sharp disadvantage when they have to compete against white and Asian peers as they move through schools and into the workplace.

While the gap is not closing, Mr. Klein said he was encouraged that the scores for black and Hispanic students were rising nonetheless.

“Do I wish that we had eliminated the entire achievement gap?” he said. “Sure.”

Jennifer Medina contributed reporting.
A version of this article appeared in print on August 16, 2010, on page A1 of the New York edition.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As Claude Rains stated in Casablanca, " I'm SHOCKED".