Four big questions to ask about New York City's new test scores

Last year, 60 percent of city students in grades 3-8 scored “proficient” or higher on the state math tests and 47 percent passed the state reading tests. This year, the first that the tests were tied to new learning standards known as the Common Core, that number will be far lower — 30 percent in math and 26 percent in reading, according to early reports. Here are four things to ask about the test scores, in addition to how low they are.

1. Where are the outliers?

All scores are expected to be low, but some will be lower than others. And some will almost certain fall by much less than the average. Identifying those outliers will be a first step in telling the story of schools’ first year under the new standards.

A school whose scores fall by far less than other similar schools might be the site of exceptional, Common Core-aligned teaching — or there might be more nefarious explanations worth looking into. On the other hand, a school whose scores drop by even more than other schools like it might have been propping up its performance in the past using test prep — that will be worth looking into, too. The scores alone won’t tell the story of what has happened inside a single school, but they can provide a starting point.

2. What happened to achievement gaps?

The Bloomberg administration has touted reductions in the racial achievement gap even after state officials announced that test scores had been inflated. The state’s test scores have showed some narrowing. But on other measures, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress, racial achievement gaps have barely budged.

The new scores will add another data point to the debate. King signaled on Tuesday that there remain significant achievement gaps by race and socioeconomic status. That’s no surprise — but what will be worth extra scrutiny is whether the new tests magnified gaps that already existed, or whether the tougher material had any kind of equalizing effect. If it turns out the black students or poor students handled the more challenging tests even less well, for example, that will raise serious questions about past gap-closing claims and about the education that high-need students are getting.

Of course, one funny thing about achievement gaps is that they can close even when everyone’s performance falls. It’s possible that black and white students will do similarly poorly — and in that case, it will be fascinating to see how state and city officials talk about discrepancies.

3. How is the city talking about the change?

Three years ago, when the state raised the bar for students to be considered proficient, city officials did little to prepare New Yorkers for the bad news. The day the scores came out, Bloomberg scrambled to find the right message — and he wound up striking a relativist tone.

“Everybody can have their definition of what it means,” Bloomberg said about the lower scores. Later, he added: “The last time I checked, Lady Gaga is doing fine with just a year of college.”

This time around, the city is not leaving its messaging up to glibness. Education officials have worked to manage expectations about the low scores for more than a year, and in the last week, they have aggressively worked to control the test-score narrative. On Tuesday, for example, Chancellor Dennis Walcott noted that Bloomberg had called for higher standards in a 2006 Washington Post op/ed. (A year later, Bloomberg said he was “ecstatic” about the city’s outsized single-year state test gains.)

We can expect to hear Bloomberg emphasize today that comparing this year’s scores to last year’s is like comparing apples to oranges — and that is true, statistically. But New Yorkers still want to know how the city’s schools performed under their three-term mayor, and hearing that more than a decade of touted growth should be forgotten is unlikely be a satisfying option. We’ll be listening for how the city situates the new scores inside the narrative it has projected up to now.

4. How does the city compare?

In recent years, as the state has raised standards, city officials have turned to intra-state comparisons to prove New York City’s relative success. Last year, the city’s scores increased by more than the rest of the state’s, and its growth also outpaced several other large cities, so even though the city’s one-year gains weren’t huge, they looked large in comparison.

City officials seem prepared to make the same comparisons today, arguing that preparation here has been strongest for the new standards. If New York City’s scores fall less than the scores of the other large cities that students here are often compared to, one explanation could be that the Department of Education’s preparation paid off. (Extreme dysfunction in the other cities could be another explanation.)

But if the decline cuts across similar districts in the state evenly, it could be that the preparation was not enough, as the teachers union has claimed. Other possibilities could be true: that even as the city asked for instructional changes, teachers stayed their previous course, as so often happens in school reform, for example. Or that the city’s students were asked to perform so far below the new standards in the past that a massive one-year effort made little dent. Again, score comparisons with the state won’t tell a complete story, but they will offer new ways of looking at what has happened in city schools over the last year.

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

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.”