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N.Y. English Scores Drop Sharply in 6th Grade

Ohanian Comment: I don't doubt the findings. What I doubt is the test. The tests are secret; they are also extremely fallible. I bring to your attention one more time Children and Reading Tests.

By David M. Herszenhorn

The share of students in New York State who are reading and writing at grade level drops sharply between the fifth and sixth grades and keeps declining through middle school, according to the first results of a new state testing system adopted to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind law’s requirements for tracking year-to-year progress.

The scores for the 2005-6 school year, which were released yesterday by the state education commissioner, Richard P. Mills, also showed an increase in the proportion of students in the state performing at the lowest level.

“The overall pattern is disturbing,” Mr. Mills said at a news conference in Albany. “Literacy is the problem. This pattern is not inevitable. This pattern has to change. All youngsters have to emerge from middle school ready for high school. We still have a lot of work to do.” He added: “We have to do something different. We have to change our tactics, our curriculum, our approach.”

The steady erosion of student achievement through eighth grade offers a particularly bleak outlook on New York State’s chances of meeting the goal of No Child Left Behind, which seeks 100 percent proficiency in reading and math among all categories of students by 2014 and imposes sanctions on schools and districts for failing to make annual progress.

Since the state began testing in the fourth and eighth grades in 1999, the middle school results have lagged behind.

Yesterday’s results, for the first time, allowed state officials to pinpoint exactly where student achievement begins to drop off sharply. The big change comes between the fifth and sixth grades, the year when many students move into middle school. More than 1.2 million students took the exam last January.

The scores offered a sobering portrait for virtually all types of school districts in the state. Although wealthy suburban districts continued to far outperform poor urban ones, the decline in performance from the fifth through eighth grades was equally apparent in the richer locales, with the trend holding across Westchester and Nassau Counties as surely as in the Bronx or Buffalo and rural counties like Allegany.

Statewide, yesterday’s results showed 69 percent of third graders meeting reading and writing standards, compared with 68.6 percent of fourth graders, 67.1 percent of fifth graders, 60.4 percent of sixth graders, 56.4 percent of seventh graders, and 49.3 percent of eighth graders. Across all grades, 61.5 percent of students met the standards.

Still, there was relatively positive news for New York City. Even though the adoption of a new set of tests makes direct comparisons to prior years statistically unreliable, the test found 61.5 percent of the city’s third graders to be on or above grade level in English. That was 8 points higher than a city test found the prior year.

The proportion of fourth graders who met the standards was virtually unchanged at 58.9 percent. Statewide, the share of fourth graders at or above grade level declined 3.8 points, to 68.6 percent.

Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein said that since 2002, New York City had outperformed other urban districts and made better progress than the state as a whole. And though he said much work had to be done, he was thrilled with the results. “I think that the work we are doing is powerful,” he said at a news conference.

New York State’s other big cities — Yonkers, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse — all showed more substantial declines in fourth grade performance. New York City also showed a solid increase in the percentage of eighth graders meeting the state standards, outpacing a slight increase statewide.

In one disappointment for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the state results cast doubt on extraordinary gains by the city’s fifth graders last year. The state results showed 56.7 percent of the city’s fifth graders on or above grade level, a decline of about 10 percentage points from the previous city test.

The pattern in New York State can be found in Michigan and Florida and is showing up around the country as states expand their testing systems. Some researchers say the problem is not in middle schools, where the scores are weak, but in earlier grades.

E. D. Hirsch Jr., the author of a recent book, “The Knowledge Deficit,” said students do not learn enough vocabulary and content knowledge at younger ages.

Daniel P. Keating, director of the Center for Human Growth and Development at the University of Michigan, said schools should prepare students earlier for the more abstract and sophisticated reasoning required in middle school.

“Perhaps the early preparation is not anticipating that shift to having those higher demands,” he said, adding that tests for younger children do not measure those skills. “All of a sudden we’re looking for the kinds of skills that just haven’t been assessed earlier.”

The scores in New York State were released in the fall this year, rather than in the spring, because of technical work required by the new exams, angering parents and educators. The timing also led New York City to promote hundreds of students in the third, fifth and seventh grades who, it turned out, had not met Mr. Bloomberg’s criteria for moving on.

Officials said those students would not be pulled back a grade, but would be given extra help.

The mayor’s rules require any student scoring at the lowest possible level on the test to be held back, and in the city that number was 11.4 percent in grades three through eight.

The city was not alone in having an increase in students performing at the lowest possible level — known as Level 1 — showing they have serious academic deficiencies.

Last year, state officials boasted that they had reduced those numbers to their lowest levels since testing began in the 1998-99 school year. But this year, 9 percent of fourth graders scored at the lowest level, up from 5.4 last year, while 9.5 percent of eighth graders similarly scored at the lowest level, up from 6.6 percent.

Overall, 8.1 percent of students in all grades scored at Level 1, which in eighth grade becomes an almost-certain prescription for failure in high school. “Students at Level 1 are going to have great difficulty passing their courses,” Mr. Mills said.

In previous years, state officials had repeatedly stressed the greater complexity of skills that students were required to demonstrate on the eighth grade exam to explain the relatively good performance on fourth grade tests and lackluster results in eighth grade.

But armed yesterday with the data across all grades, Mr. Mills said he believed there was a widespread and dangerous slacking off in literacy instruction beginning in the fifth grade at many schools, and he called on educators to raise their vigilance.

“They certainly are not learning to read in a powerful way; they certainly are not learning to write as they should,” Mr. Mills said. “Adult literacy scores are too low, but this is where it begins. It begins with a decision to just let it go, to just let it go when a child doesn’t learn to read at the very beginning.”

Mr. Mills said the state’s Board of Regents had long been concerned about the transition from elementary to middle school and those concerns were bound to be heightened. “There has to be a hand-off not only of the students, but also of what they know and what’s expected,” he said.

Ford Fessenden contributed reporting.

— David M. Herszenhorn
New York Times


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