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NYC test scores drop in math, rise in reading

Nearly half of New York City’s third- through eighth-graders passed their state reading tests last year, while about 38% passed math, according to published scores. Wednesday by city officials.

The scores are the first measure of how students in the five boroughs have fared in reading and math since the coronavirus pandemic upended in-person schooling and left many children struggling with isolation and grief. Although schools gave students other city-mandated assessments last year, authorities have refused to release the results.

“During the pandemic, children have gone through all sorts of challenges that they are still recovering from,” Schools Chancellor David Banks told reporters on Wednesday. “No matter what the latest test results tell you, I can tell you that the system is flawed in far too many ways. We are trying to create a new way forward.

Overall reading scores rose slightly, up 1.6 percentage points from 2019, while math scores fell significantly, down 7.6 percentage points. The city has not released charter school results.

However, looking at the data year by year paints a different picture of reading scores: for the youngest students, third and fourth graders, scores fell by 4 percentage points and 6 percentage points respectively.

City officials compared the scores to the 2019 results, noting the past two years of disruptions. The state canceled the exams in 2020. The following year, the state allowed families to choose to take them the following year. Only a fifth of the city’s students took them.

State officials, however, cautioned against comparing test results with 2019 due to the ongoing effects of the pandemic and “different participation rates among students.” About 10% of students in the city chose not to take reading or math exams, up from 4% in 2019, education department officials said.

The percentage of children passing math tests fell for every major group of students, with the biggest drop among Latino students, by 10 percentage points. In contrast, reading achievement rates increased for every group of students, with the greatest increase among students called “never ELLs,” or students who were once considered learning English as a new language but who are no longer.

Disparities remained between white and Asian American students compared to their black and Latino peers. About 70.5% of Asian American students and 67% of white students passed the reading exams, compared to 35.8% of black students and 36.8% of Latino students. In math, 68.3% of Asian American students and 58.5% of white students passed, compared to 20.6% of black children and 23.3% of Latino students.

Disparities also persisted among students with higher needs. Among students with disabilities, 18.3% passed reading and 14.4% passed math. Of the students learning English as a new language, 12.7% were successful in reading, while 15% achieved a proficiency score in math.

The scores could be a tool for schools to understand which students need more support this year. In response to declining national test scores, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said schools should prioritize COVID relief funds to bolster academic support and additional tutoring.

However, as federal funds dry up, schools are getting less money this year to create additional tutoring programs or provide additional support for students with disabilities. And unlike last year, schools can use this pool of money to hire staff as schools grapple with budget cuts, tied to projected declining enrollment.

Aaron Pallas, a teacher at Teachers College and a testing expert, doesn’t think the scores can compare to 2019 due to lower enrollments and higher dropout rates. Compared to 2019, 21% fewer children took math tests and 18% fewer children took reading tests, according to city data.

Pallas said he expects people to use the scores to bolster arguments that traditional public schools aren’t working as a Republican gubernatorial candidate. Lee Zeldin has, but that there is not enough information to draw these conclusions.

“Honestly, I don’t really think [the scores are] this is useful, certainly not for making district-level or district-level decisions about resource allocation,” Pallas said, adding that parents also won’t have the right context to understand the results of their children.

Some advocates said the scores indicate schools need more resources, especially for young children who were learning to read when the pandemic first hit, pointing to declining reading achievement rates for students from third and fourth year. Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children New York, said “it will be critical” to learn from new programs focused on improving literacy.

Scores could be a factor in college and high school admissions this year. Schools that select students were previously allowed to use test scores as an admissions factor, but this was halted during the pandemic and banned last year under former Mayor Bill de Blasio. City officials are expected to announce this year’s admission criteria soon.

Banks criticized standardized testing, saying schools that focus on laser testing cannot provide a “complete learning experience.” After touring the classrooms of his alma mater, Hillcrest High School, on Wednesday, Banks stressed that the measure of student success is whether they will be prepared for quality jobs upon graduation.

“The ROI is not the scores they got on standardized exams,” Banks said. “Test results are important, but they are not everything.”

Unlike in previous years, Wednesday’s test results could not be immediately compared to other districts in New York or even statewide. In a departure, this year’s scores were released by New York City rather than the state, which has yet to release statewide results.

After initially barring districts from sharing scores, state officials gave local districts the go-ahead last week.

Officials plan to release statewide scores this fall, but did not say when, and blamed the delay on a cumbersome process for releasing preliminary and final scores this year.

Amy Zimmer and Alex Zimmerman contributed.

Reema Amin is a journalist covering New York City schools with a focus on state politics and English learners. Contact Reema at [email protected]

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