The results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — a federally administered exam widely referred to as the “gold standard” in educational assessment — come after years of marked improvement since 2003.
“Our students have made impressive gains since 2003 — especially compared to their peers across New York state and the nation,” schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said in a statement. “However, these results also show the urgent need to improve our middle schools and roll out a new curriculum that takes our students to the next level. We cannot be satisfied until all of our students are on track for success in life after high school.”
The test was given to a select group of 2,500 fourth-graders and 2,200 eighth-graders this year, two years after the last round of testing in 2009. The vast majority of test-takers — around 90 percent — are considered low-income students since they are eligible for free or reduced lunches.
Both fourth- and eighth-grade students exhibited slight decreases in their math scores between 2009 and 2011. Fourth-grade reading scores showed almost no change, and eighth-grade reading scores increased slightly, the data showed. But the report specified that none of these changes could be considered statistically significant.
About 39 percent of fourth-graders still test at “below basic” levels in reading, compared with 53 percent in 2002. For eighth-grade students, 35 percent tested at “below basic” levels, versus 38 percent in 2003.
In math, 24 percent of fourth-graders tested at “below basic” levels this year, compared to 33 percent in 2003. And 41 percent of eighth-graders fell into the “below basic” category, compared to 46 percent in 2003.
New York City’s students performed about the same on the 2011 tests as the 21 other large urban districts across the country that were included in the most recent round of examinations. But the city’s Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky pointed out that low-income students in New York City “now outperform their peers across the nation, and that’s a reason to be proud.”
“The key challenge,” Polakow-Suransky added, “is to change our instruction and improve our assessments so that students keep moving forward. Our work ahead will require students to do more critical thinking, write research papers and defend their ideas in essays, and read the type of non-fiction texts they will encounter in college.”
Education has been a cornerstone of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration since he took control of the city’s schools in 2002. But some of his moves on that front have been met with ample criticism.
At a recent event, Bloomberg advocated cutting the number of teachers in the city by half and then doubling the pay for those that remained — a statement that prompted an outcry from a number of city leaders.
And Crain’s New York cited a recent Quinnipiac poll in which 58 percent of voters disapproved of how the mayor has handled education in the city. Among public school parents, that number was even higher, with 69 percent opposed to his efforts.
In a statement, the Department of Education said that two major initiatives were underway to increase proficiency among public school students.
One is the adoption of the Common Core standards, which have already been implemented in New York City but won’t be federally mandated until 2014. The standards place a greater emphasis on critical thinking skills.
Also, the city has agreed to spend $15 million to buy non-fiction books for middle school students, and it hopes to open at least 50 new middle schools, while closing those that continually underperform.