To bolster its argument that city schools are heading in the right direction, the de Blasio administration often touts state test score gains, rising graduation rates, and the expansion of free pre-K.
But a different barometer shows that little has changed when it comes to student performance since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office.
The city’s scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP — given to a random sampling of fourth and eighth graders every two years in math and English — have essentially remained stagnant for the past several years, according to 2019 data released Wednesday. (One notable exception was a five-point drop in fourth-grade math scores from 2013, when de Blasio was elected.)
New York City scores on 2019’s tests were below the national average as well as the state average. The city’s scores were roughly in the middle of the pack of the 27 urban districts that participate in a city-level comparison.
New York City was not unique in posting flat scores. In fact, national scores have essentially remained flat for a decade, the data show.
“The nature of the tests and the nature of school reform are such that we generally only see trends over a longer period of time rather than from one administration to the next,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College.
But he noted that NAEP, like the state tests, show similar patterns when it comes to disparities among racial groups, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners.
For the fourth-grade math tests (which are on a 500-point scale), for example, New York City’s Asian students, saw an average 10-point increase from 2017 to 2019, the only significant increase among different racial groups. Their average scores were nine points higher than white students, 37-points higher than Hispanic students and 41 points higher than black students. As the scores for black students fell slightly, the average gap between Asian and black students grew by 14 points since 2017.
One reason the city’s fourth grade scores are lower than its counterparts, New York City education officials noted, is that NAEP tests certain geometry skills that aren’t expected to be taught here until fifth grade.
The NAEP scores are often viewed as a check on state test scores. While New York City students performed below New York State students in all categories on NAEP, the city had outperformed the state slightly on the most recent math state tests.
Pallas cautioned against making direct comparisons to the state tests. For one, NAEP differs from the state tests since schools can’t teach to the national test. Students taking the NAEP get a randomized sample of questions as opposed to the state tests where students get the same questions.
Also, while officials claim that the state tests are used to help inform classroom instruction — even though scores are not released until the following school year — NAEP scores aren’t used by teachers to shape curriculum, nor do students get their individual scores.
“The actual relevance of what would a teacher or school district do differently is hard to tell,” Pallas said. “It doesn’t tell you much about policy or [classroom] practice.”
Nonetheless, the NAEP is considered the gold standard when it comes to comparing student performance across states and offering more of a big picture view of how a school district or state is faring.
“The NAEP tests are the best we have as a stable measure of student performance,”said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “The scores not only allow for national and international comparisons but comparisons over time which are probably most important.”
The scores are “less subject to the politicization of other data points,” he added. “At the same time, it’s disheartening that myriad small and large reform efforts seem to have little impact on overall student achievement.”
In response to the stable NAEP scores, New York City education department spokesperson Danielle Filson said the “Equity and Excellence for All agenda is driving results where it counts—with record-high graduation and college enrollment rates increasing year after year,” adding, “We’re going to continue to focus on helping kids meet the high bar for academic achievement in this City.”
Here’s how New York ranked among urban districts on the four tests: