Raising Standards: Part but Only Part of the Answer
To its credit, the Education Department has not downplayed figures illustrating the widespread failure of public schools to teach reading to minority children. Indeed, Commissioner Mills has said the reading performance throughout the system is well below the levels that New Yorkers should expect. This is borne out not only by the state's own test scores but by New York's performance as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
In 1994, NAEP found that 44 percent of fourth-grade pupils nationwide were below the "basic" reading level tested -- and in New York, the figure was a bit higher, at 46 percent below basic. That bears repeating: NAEP found that 46 percent of all New York fourth-graders -- white and minority -- were below basic in reading.
In both 1992 and 1994, the average score of New York pupils on the NAEP reading test (after averaging in those scoring well above basic) simply matched the national average -- even though New York is consistently among the top two or three states in per-pupil spending. Out of 39 states participating in the tests in 1994, 13 scored higher than New York. While New York is among the national leaders in per-pupil spending, four of the state with higher scores spend less than the national average, and another five spend only slightly more.
New York scores "are statistically indistinguishable from those of many other states, including Maryland, Pennsylvania and Kentucky," Commissioner Mills noted. "But New Jersey, Massachusetts and Indiana outperform New York. This is not acceptable."(8)
Raising the bar
In the face of compelling evidence that a large and growing number of minority children are failing to achieve even minimal competency in reading, the Board of Regents has begun to raise the performance bar for public schools.
Through the 1995-96 school year, the Regents' official expectation was that at least 65 percent of pupils in both third and sixth grade should pass minimum competency in reading. As of 1996-97, the standard has been raised to 90 percent -- a level the vast majority of high-minority schools now do not even come close to meeting.
As of 1996, the vast majority of low-minority public schools (those in which enrollments were more than 80 percent white) already met the higher standard in both third and sixth grades. But only 18 out of 519 high-minority public schools reported 90 percent of their pupils reading above minimum in third grade -- and just one of those schools was located in New York City. Only 23 out of 370 high-minority public schools achieved the new standard in sixth grade, including just seven schools in New York City.
Non-public schools are better-positioned to meet the higher standard. Fifty-seven non-public schools with high-minority enrollments -- roughly one quarter of all non-public schools in this category -- had 90 percent or more of their third-grade pupils above the minimum competency. Even excluding schools with atypically small class sizes, there were twice as many non-public schools as public schools meeting the higher standards. Three high-minority schools in New York State reported 100 percent of their third graders above minimum on the 1996 reading test; all three were non-public schools. In sixth grade, non-public schools accounted for five of the eight schools reporting 100 percent of their students scoring above the minimum.
Ultimately, if New York succeeds only in raising the standards -- without changing the results -- there is the danger that the only thing that will have been improved will be the extent and quality of the documentation that our schools are failing.
8. Commissioner's Report to the Board of Regents, March 1996.
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