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The main reason for annual standardized tests is to figure out how much kids are learning each year. But when New York released its 2014 Common Core test results on August 14, state education officials were selective in their data reporting and did not disclose actual student scores. Instead they released only the percentage of children hitting various proficiency thresholds. That makes it difficult for outsiders to understand how much New York students improved after their second year of Common Core curriculum and testing.

“Performance levels can be misleading. They can mask the actual score changes that students are making,” said Robert Rothman, senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, D.C.

Rothman explained that you can have a big jump in proficiency with only a small test score gain if there are lot of students close to the proficiency cut point. Conversely, if students are far behind, they can have giant test score gains, but not jump over the proficiency threshold. That makes it particularly difficult to see if the most vulnerable students, those in the bottom 10 or 25 percent, are improving.

Despite confusion over how much New York students are improving, New York City’s small gains in proficiency (almost 5 percentage points in math and 1 percentage point in reading) appear to be real progress, experts say, because they mirror similar improvements on national tests (specifically the Trial Urban District Assessment portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)). On the NAEP, New York City has typically shown a point or two annual gain in math, but flat reading scores. Prior to 2013, when Common Core testing was introduced, New York students had posted much larger gains on the local state tests than on national tests, calling into question how valid test score gains were during the Bloomberg administration.

“No assessment system can tell you the whole story. When you have two different systems, and they’re telling you the same thing, then you have more confidence that the story they’re telling you is correct,” said Henry Braun, the Boisi Professor of education and public policy at Boston College. He concluded that it was a good thing to see small improvement in the second year of Common Core testing, but that it’s going to be a “hard, slow slog” to get the majority of students to the proficient level with only about a third hitting that threshold now.

At the same time, the test-score gap between New York City and the other four largest cities in the state jumps out. New York City has embraced the concept of higher Common Core education standards, and experts think its enthusiasm may be behind the city’s decent showing on the tests. Although the city has outperformed the state’s other cities for years, experts believe that the New York City district is further along than other metropolitan areas in introducing new Common Core lessons into the classroom.

While many political leaders around the country are bowing to public pressure to retreat from Common Core, both Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, pointedly confirmed their commitment to Common Core when they announced the test results. “We want to aim high,” said Mayor de Blasio. Both promised to invest more in teacher training to help implement the new standards in the classroom.

This chart below shows how New York City’s students, the majority of whom are low-income minorities, score near the state average with roughly a third of the students scoring proficiently in math and reading. But students in Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo and Yonkers (where most students are also low-income) are well behind. In Rochester, the weakest performing big city, less than 7 percent of the student population in grades four through eight hit the proficient mark.

Chart created by Jill Barshay using Google Spreadsheets. Data from pages 20 and 32 in the Engage NY August 2014 PowerPoint presentation, Measuring Student Progress in Grades 3-8 English Language Arts and Mathematics.

“The cities in the northern tier are so far below New York City, way, way behind. That ought to be a clarion call to bring to those cities the secret sauce that New York has been using for the past several years,” said Braun.

The city’s Common Core roll out hasn’t been without problems, though. Last school year, teachers throughout the state, including in New York City, complained that curriculum and textbooks were late to arrive and that they had not received enough training in the new standards to teach them effectively.

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