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Math Scores Up, Achievement Gap Narrowing in New York State

There’s good news coming out of New York this week.  The state has reported a rise in student math scores in grades three through eight over the last year.  These gains can be seen statewide, at every grade level, and more significantly, among black and Latino children.

In New York City, the rise in achievement means that 65 percent of students have met the new, more rigorous, math proficiency standards, up from 57 percent. This level of achievement brings it close to the statewide average of 73 percent and demonstrates one of the biggest gains made by any big city, second only to Syracuse

As has been reported in the news lately, these results mirror a national trend which show students are improving their performance in math over the last few years. In New York, some have taken it as a sign that the reforms implemented by the state education department and New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg are working.

Since the new math standards and exam were implemented last year, the state has implemented a number of initiatives.  They have developed a new grade-by-grade core curriculum, all uncertified teacher positions have been eliminated, and the state has worked more closely with educators in the big city school districts on how to implement the new curriculum.

Mayor Bloomberg has also put into action a number of reforms since taking control of the city schools. He credits this year’s gains to the extended school year which added an extra two days a year and 150 minutes a week for instruction to students not meeting the standards.

It appears the combination of efforts is working for children in New York State. Yet, all is not rosy in our schools. There are still school districts, such as Yonkers, and a large number of schools within New York City that showed losses in math scores.  In Harlem’s district 5, for instance, where the student population is predominantly black and Latino, ten out of its twenty-one schools had a decrease in the number of students testing at or above grade level in at least one grade. Five of the schools demonstrated double-digit losses, and one school showed decreases in the passing rate in more than one grade level.

Success in the state math exam is not uniform across schools, nor is it universal among boys and girls.  Results for students in the middle grades show that girls are outperforming boys, drawing legitimate concerns about the potential fall in graduation rates among boys from the State Ed Department.

Another convincing area of concern is eighth grade reading and math scores. Although the percentage of students scoring at or above grade level has increased over the last year, the results are nevertheless underwhelming. This year, only 57 percent of eighth graders met the math standards and only 59 percent met the reading standards.  These results raise the troublesome question of whether current reform efforts are focusing on test preparation and basic skills to the detriment of the deeper conceptual thinking that students need for advanced study.

In New York City, the gains reported in the news this week show long-awaited improvement in student performance. However, we still have much to do to raise the level of proficiency for the remaining 35 percent of city children still testing below grade level. Substantial new funding will be available to the city’s schools in the next few years as a result of the CFE litigation. The challenge for the mayor and the chancellor will be to use these funds effectively to substantially close the achievement gap and put all of our children on the path to progress.

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