The only reasonable conclusion to draw from this weeks report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is that reading and math achievement by New York Citys students is dismal and has remained so for almost a decade. Known as the Nations Report Card, the federal test compares progress by fourth- and eighth-graders in 21 large cities. A mere 24 percent of all New York City eighth-graders read at the NAEP proficiency level. In eighth-grade math, an identical 24 percent of city students scored at or above NAEP proficiency. That amounts to a modest 6 percentile-point increase from the 2003 NAEP tests; the average eighth-grade math improvement of all U.S. big-city school districts is 12 points during that period.
The disappointing NAEP performance of Gothams eighth-graders is particularly significant for our citys future. We might usefully think of this cohort of about 80,000 students as Bloombergs children. Thats because they started out in kindergarten in September 2002, just two months after the state legislature voted to give Mayor Bloomberg total control of the schools. The mayor promised that new accountability measures would reform the previously dysfunctional and sclerotic school system and help newly entering students to improve their academic performance and achieve higher graduation rates. Bloomberg also assured the citys taxpayers that he could produce dramatic improvements without a significant increase in school spending. In a January 2003 speech outlining his reform program, he noted that the city already spends $12 billion annually, which ought to be enough to give our children the education they deserve.
The citys education budget this year is close to $24 billion, and Bloombergs children are now in their first year in high school. In three years, most of them will be expected to begin the college application process. Its been well established, however, that reading comprehension is key to advancement in all other academic skills. Thus its likely that only the 24 percent of the cohort that can read at NAEPs eight-grade proficiency level will be ready to do serious college-level work.
Up to now, the city has avoided dealing with this disturbing reality by ginning up its high school graduation numbers through dumbed-down Regents exams and credit-recovery abuses, in which students who fail courses required for graduation earn passing grades after attending a few additional Saturday sessions or turning in extra homework assignments. Thus, the city has been able to boast of an astonishing rise in four-year graduation rates, which currently stand at 65 percent. But the State Education Department poured cold water on the graduation-rate claim with a recent study that showed that only 22 percent of students receiving diplomas were college ready. Its no coincidence that the states college-ready figure is nearly identical to the citys eighth-grade proficiency rates in math and reading.
DOE officials are responding to poor NAEP results the same way they did to last years revelations that the citys spectacular increases on state reading and math tests were due almost entirely to the deliberate lowering of pass rates. The DOE then explained that despite plummeting test scores on the revamped 2010 tests, New York still performed better than all other urban districts in the state. The DOE continues to use this were better than Buffalo defense, inadequate as it is. Our students have made impressive gains [on the NAEP] since 2003—especially compared to their peers across New York State, said Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott. DOE officials also promise that NAEP test scores will improve once the schools have aligned their curricula and teaching with the Common Core Standards—a requirement the city accepted in order to qualify for Race to the Top funds from the Obama administration.
But the solution to the citys education problems wont come from Washington, D.C. In fact, the federally imposed common standards will probably become one more failed reform. The real answer, at least for the citys awful reading scores, is more likely to be found in a group of ten elementary schools participating in a pilot reading program pioneered by the brilliant scholar and cognitive scientist E. D. Hirsch. Over a three-year period, students in the schools using Hirschs Core Knowledge reading curriculum outperformed their peers from a control group of ten other schools by a huge margin on K2 reading tests.
Unfortunately, though the DOE conducted the Core Knowledge reading study, it has made no move so far to bring the program to other schools. Its well past time to do so.
Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.