More Needs to Be Done for Poor and Minority Students

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

New York released data last week on the test scores of this year’s public school students, which, as expected, showed sharp declines in proficiency.  Tougher exams mean lower test scores.  Education officials knew this as they tried to alert the public for what they realized would be disappointing numbers.

The reason for the drop in scores is the first use of significantly harder exams in place this year, which now reflect usage of the Common Core Standards Initiative, a national effort to codify what students should know and be able to perform at each level of schooling.  The new exams require students to demonstrate greater analytical skills, writing essays and solving complicated math problems.  In effect, they emphasize reasoning as opposed to the old rote method of learning. 

Last year, with the easier exams, 47 percent of city students in third through eighth grade passed the English test and 60 percent passed the math test.  This year, with the more rigorous standards of Common Core, those numbers fell to 26 percent and 30 percent, respectively.

Vast Gap in Scores Remain

There is still a disturbingly vast gap in test scores between black and Latino students and white and Asian students.  Only 15 percent of the city’s black students and 19 percent of Latino students passed the math exam, compared to 50 percent of white students and 61 percent of Asian students.

The achievement gap between New York City’s students of different incomes remains far too great.  Too many students from low-income families, who are largely black and Latino, still lag behind in schools without the resources to help them succeed.  Despite the debates about testing and teachers, the greatest predictor of students’ performance remains their household income. 

More needs to be done to ensure that poor communities have the resources to help their children succeed.  This means more early education slots, ensuring that our children graduate with the skills and competencies necessary to get a job or succeed in college.  The city needs to expand access for young black and Latino students in the gifted and talented program, the elite public high schools, and the top four-year CUNY colleges. 

The drop in scores across the state was similar to New York City’s scores.  Last year, 55 percent of students statewide passed the English test and 65 percent the math.  This year, the scores dropped to 31 percent for both exams.

The city’s test results come as New Yorkers reflect on 12 years of education policy under the Bloomberg administration.  Regardless of the assessments used – be they linked to the Common Core or not – there have been some clear improvements in the public schools system.

One of the most noticeable areas of improvement has been in expanding career and technical education (CTE) programs in public high schools.  CTE schools are not only offering more students real skills with which to gain employment, but an understanding of career pathways to decent jobs and how higher education will have a tangible impact on their lives.

Programs serving older youth at risk of dropping out – known as multiple pathways to graduation – have been expanded.   With more than 180,000 disconnected youth in New York City – not in school or working - who are between 16 and 24 years of age, it is imperative that we double our efforts to help young people obtain their high school diploma, learn a skill that is necessary in this economy, and then pursue work that will create a foundation for economic security and mobility.

Debate about the Common Core is surely important, as parents, students, and policy makers should have a substantive discussion about the value of high-stakes testing.  Teaching to the test has been a source of constant criticism since the No Child Left Behind law instituted regular testing across the country tied to federal funding.

Better Preparation

Common Core standards have been adopted by 45 states.  Educators have long believed that earlier testing was inconsistent and inadequate, leaving students – even those who graduated high school - unprepared for college and jobs.  Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, said that Common Core standards would better prepare students for the skills necessary for higher education and the nation’s evolving labor market.

The Common Core debate will undoubtedly dominate the headlines for a while.  But let’s not allow it to overshadow the advances we have made, as well as those toward which we must continue working.