tale of two tales

At test score presentations, NYC celebrates, state stays sober

IMG_20130807_110607It was a tale of two press conferences.

Using words like “distressing” and “disheartening,” state education leaders struck a sober tone this morning at their Midtown offices to discuss this year’s test scores.

But at his press event a couple hours later, Mayor Bloomberg had a different take, identifying what he said was “very good news” inside the city’s lower scores.

The scores, the first to reflect students’ performance on tests aligned to new learning standards, were far lower than in the past and suggest that less than a third of students across the state are performing at grade level.

Statewide, the drops were sharpest for students who historically have struggled in school. Across the state, fewer than one in five black and Latino children are on track to graduate from high school prepared to take college courses, according to the new scores, officials said.

“Perhaps the most disheartening piece of today is the persistence of the achievement gap,” New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in her opening remarks. The racial disparities in reading test scores across all grades, Tisch added, “reveal the really daunting, daunting challenge.”

“It’s incredibly distressing,” said State Education Commissioner John King, when asked specifically about low scores in the state’s city school districts. In some upstate cities, less than 10 percent of students met the state’s new proficiency standards.

King and Tisch’s next stop, Tweed Courthouse for the city’s press conference, had a decidedly lighter feel. It was Mayor Bloomberg’s final test score presentation of his tenure, reprising an event that he has regularly used to bolster reform policies that he’s implemented during his 11 years in office.

“We’re here to discuss the new grades, which when you take a look at them and understand them, I think actually is some very good news,” Bloomberg said, adding, “Even though people haven’t written it that way yet, but I can only attribute that to people not understanding the numbers.”

The city’s proficiency scores, which rose sharply until 2010 when new state scoring led to significant drops, have come under scrutiny in recent days by political opponents who say he has misled parents about student learning gains.

But Bloomberg and an accompanying slideshow pointed to a number data points that showed city schools had performed relatively well. The city’s average proficiency in both English and math is closer to the statewide average than ever before, which Bloomberg said was notable since the state’s scores were positively weighted by many suburban districts with more affluent student populations. He credited city teachers for the performance.

Untitled_edit“For us to catch up to the state just couldn’t happen and yet it has happened,” Bloomberg said. “I think our teachers have really stepped up to the plate here.”

New York City’s proficiency slide was much less severe than the four other large urban districts in the state: Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers. While the city’s math proficiency rates dropped by about 50 percent, Rochester dropped by 80 percent.

But Bloomberg left out an important distinction when drawing comparisons to other cities, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew argued later in the afternoon.

“There’s one big difference between our school system and any other school system in this state. In this city we have mayoral control,” said Mulgrew, criticizing Bloomberg for not raising standards earlier. “He did not need to wait until the Common Core standards were pushed upon us from the state. He could have raised standards at any time.”

The city also focused on the performance of its charter schools, whose average proficiency rates were 35 percent in math, 11 points higher than district schools, and 25 percent in English, slightly lower than the average district school.

“We will continue supporting the growing charter sector in our city,” said Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

Comparing achievement gaps from one year to the next in year with new tests and a new standard baseline is a difficult endeavor, and state officials have warned against using year-to-year comparisons to draw conclusions about how much more or less students learned.

But one of the city’s slides sought to do just that, comparing how students did on the National Assessment of Educational Progress with the new state test scores to suggest that performance has improved since the last time the NAEP test was given in 2011. The two tests are intended to be similar, but an education researcher cringed at the comparison.

“It’s a pretty meaningless comparison because they’re different tests with different content and different perceptions of what rigorous means,” said Aaron Pallas, of Columbia University’s Teachers College. “I can’t see any justification for making that comparison.”

In New York City, the racial achievement gap widened based on a city analysis that compared proficiency rates to last year. While scores for Asian students were down just under 30 percent and fell for white students by under 40 percent, black and Hispanic scores were down by about 60 percent.

Officials said they couldn’t say definitively how much the achievement gap had grown. They said comparing year-to-year proficiency rates is not precise because many students who score near the proficiency threshold are black and Hispanic students, so negative changes in their raw scores are more likely to result in movement to lower proficiency levels.

“It’s reasonable to assume the achievement gap will get wider and it’s also reasonable to assume that kids are going to rise to the challenge,” said Chief Academic Office Shael Polakow-Suransky.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”