The only reasonable conclusion to draw from this week’s report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is that reading and math achievement by New York City’s students is dismal and has remained so for almost a decade. Known as the “Nation’s 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 Gotham’s eighth-graders is particularly significant for our city’s future. We might usefully think of this cohort of about 80,000 students as “Bloomberg’s children.” That’s 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 city’s 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 city’s education budget this year is close to $24 billion, and Bloomberg’s 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. It’s been well established, however, that reading comprehension is key to advancement in all other academic skills. Thus it’s likely that only the 24 percent of the cohort that can read at NAEP’s 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.” It’s no coincidence that the state’s college-ready figure is nearly identical to the city’s eighth-grade proficiency rates in math and reading.
DOE officials are responding to poor NAEP results the same way they did to last year’s revelations that the city’s 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 “we’re 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 city’s education problems won’t 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 city’s 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 Hirsch’s Core Knowledge reading curriculum outperformed their peers from a control group of ten other schools by a huge margin on K–2 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. It’s well past time to do so.