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City Journal Autumn 2006.
Autumn 2006
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Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice
by Sol Stern
Breaking Free.
 
  S oundings

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Gotham’s Telltale Reading Tests
Sol Stern

Read ’em and weep at P.S. 33.

One morning in May 2005, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office bused the city hall press corps to P.S. 33, an elementary school in one of the Bronx’s poorest areas. In the school’s auditorium, overflowing with happy children and teachers, the mayor proclaimed a miracle. With an enrollment 95 percent Hispanic and black, and with 100 percent of the students poor enough to qualify for free lunch, P.S. 33 had hit the jackpot on the state’s fourth-grade reading test. Over 83 percent of the school’s 140 fourth-graders scored at or above proficiency (or grade level), the mayor explained, compared with only 35.8 percent in 2004—an unheard-of one-year gain of close to 50 percentage points. The school’s terrific score was just four percentage points below the average for the richest suburban districts in the state.

The P.S. 33 success was the cherry topping off a very sweet election-year gift for Mayor Bloomberg. At the press conference, he could report “historic” and “record-breaking” gains in reading—59.5 percent of all Gotham fourth-graders had achieved proficiency on the state test, a gain of nearly ten percentage points from the year before. The results proved, the mayor contended, that his education reforms “really are paying off for those who were previously left behind.” Media coverage the next day echoed the mayor’s claims. It was clear that mayoral candidate Bloomberg had hit a home run right on the home field of his likeliest Democratic challenger, Fernando Ferrer.

When the 2006 reading scores came out in September, however, Bloomberg was in California, burnishing his national political image and spreading the gospel about the benefits of mayoral control of urban school districts. It was up to schools chancellor Joel Klein to discuss this year’s results at a reporters’ “roundtable” at his Tweed Courthouse headquarters (no gala press conference this year, no miracle schools to visit). Klein acknowledged that fourth-grade reading was down slightly but noted that Gotham remained ahead of most of the state’s urban districts. And though eighth-grade reading was still dreadfully low—only 36.6 percent of city students had attained proficiency—it was up three points over 2005.

The education reporters seemed rather incurious about what happened to the P.S. 33 fourth-graders whom they celebrated as heroes last year. Too bad, because it would have been easy to find out. The federal No Child Left Behind law now requires state education authorities to test students in grades three through eight and make the scores public. Thus, one can for the first time track a particular student cohort’s test scores on the same battery of state tests as they move from grade to grade. One discovers that the miraculous achievement of P.S. 33’s fourth-graders in 2005 completely disintegrated in 2006, with the pass rate plummeting to 41.1 percent in the fifth grade. This year’s fourth-graders at the school achieved proficiency at only a 47.5 percent rate.

Put aside the raw numbers and consider the human consequences of this collapse. Last year, the mayor publicly honored 120 poor Hispanic and black children for beating the odds and passing the reading test. This year, half of those kids discovered that they were failures after all. Last year, they shone as stars of a mayoral campaign. This year, they were truly “left behind.”

No one from city hall or the education department came to the school to explain how so many kids could be high achievers one year and failures the next. Nor was the school’s miracle principal, Elba Lopez, around to explain the shocking setback. After last year’s triumphant press conference, she retired, collecting a $15,000 bonus for her school’s spectacular 2005 performance, boosting her pension $12,000 for life. Meanwhile, the school’s wildly fluctuating test numbers are so unbelievable that they should attract the attention of state education authorities and the city school system’s special office of investigations.

Unlike P.S. 33’s 2005 scores, the city’s overall test results are all too believable—and revealing. Enough year-to-year test data now exist to make reasonable judgments about student achievement under Mayor Bloomberg. The scorecard on fourth-grade reading: for the four years prior to the Bloomberg reforms, under chancellors Rudy Crew and Harold Levy, the average annual gain was five percentage points. The Bloomberg administration can claim an annual gain of just two percentage points since its reforms kicked in with the 2003–04 school year.

The eighth-grade reading results are dismal. Since 1999, the percentage of the city’s eighth-graders achieving proficiency has risen just 1.3 points, leaving nearly two-thirds of students unprepared for the ninth grade in 2006. By the gold-standard federal NAEP tests, the percentage of those unprepared jumps to over 80 percent. Clearly, mayoral control—at least under this mayor—hasn’t improved eighth-grade reading. All these test results must be immensely disappointing to anyone who backed mayoral control as a means of boosting academic achievement. Having succeeded with the public celebration of P.S. 33’s one-year triumph, the administration probably will keep trying to sweep bad news about student performance under the rug. And the big losers of this denial of reality will be the kids, particularly those most at risk.

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More by Sol Stern:
When the Instructors Need Instructing
The Real Common Core Story
Who Is Carmen Fariña?
More . . .
If you liked this story, you may also be interested in:
The Closing of Diane Ravitch’s Mind
The Plot Against Merit
This story was cited in:
Joanne Jacobs
Democracy Project
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