Testing Mess

To the editor:
Sol Stern’s call for rigorous standardized tests is on target, but his description of New York City’s record isn’t credible [“Can New York Clean Up the Testing Mess?,” Spring 2010].

Stern would gore New York City with charges that test scores throughout New York State are inflated, yet he fails to mention a critical point: city students have performed far better than the rest of the state on the same tests. Since Mayor Bloomberg took control of the schools, fourth-graders in New York City have become proficient in English at three times the rate of students elsewhere in the state. In math, the city’s eighth-graders have cut the proficiency gap with the rest of the state in half—from 27 to 14 points.

Similarly, Stern cannot legitimately call NAEP exams the “gold standard” of testing while failing to note that New York City students have made statistically significant progress on three out of four NAEP tests since 2003, while far outperforming their peers in New York State and the nation. Even Diane Ravitch, a frequent critic of Bloomberg education policy in New York City, told the New York Times earlier this year that the city’s progress on math “is solid, and Chancellor Joel Klein can certainly take pride in that improvement.” (The improved performance of New York City students reflected in both state and federal testing can also be seen in the city’s graduation rate, which has risen 29 percent since 2005—compared with 3 percent for the rest of New York state.)

If Stern’s treatment of the city’s testing performance is tendentious, his suggestion that test scores have risen because of widespread cheating is irresponsible and totally unsupported. An audit issued by former New York City comptroller and then–Bloomberg mayoral opponent William C. Thompson concluded that his office’s “own review of the data and documentation collected by DOE . . . did not reveal any instances of cheating.” The city’s test-security measures exceed state-mandated requirements, as Thompson noted.

New York City students have made clear and undeniable progress. A serious and impartial analysis of the facts would have led to that conclusion.

David Cantor
Press Secretary, New York City Department of Education

Sol Stern responds:
This is more unsupported boasting by the DOE. It’s a statistical artifact that Mr. Cantor should be familiar with—that when state scores are inflated, the lower-performing districts (such as New York City) will seem to catch up with the rest of the state, merely because there is an upward limit to the level of improvement for the higher-performing districts. (After all, even in New York, no one can score higher than 100 percent.)

I have previously acknowledged in City Journal that the city’s fourth-grade math scores on the NAEP are up, and I now gladly acknowledge that there was finally a small bump this year on fourth-grade reading. (There was also a slight increase in the NAEP reading test under the previous chancellor, Harold Levy.) But the point of my article was to show that the DOE’s trumpeting of huge improvements on state tests is called into question by much smaller gains or no gains at all on the NAEP tests. As for the city’s graduation rates, there has never been an independent audit determining how much of the claimed improvement is due to widely used gimmicks like credit recovery—that is, allowing students who fail courses to get the needed credits by showing up for a couple of Saturday sessions and doing “makeup” work—or due to the discharge of some students from the rolls. I don’t believe the DOE’s numbers, and neither do many other knowledgeable observers, including Diane Ravitch, whom Mr. Cantor now cites as an authority.

On the issue of test security, the city’s standards exceed the state’s. That’s because, as I showed in my article, the state has no standards at all. And the city comptroller’s audit that Mr. Cantor cites wasn’t about teachers or administrators cheating by tampering with student test papers, which is the only issue that I wrote about.

Ouch, Babe

To the editor:
I don’t see the purpose of John H. McWhorter’s one-sided rereading of the life and work of Sammy Davis, Jr. [“Mr. Mimic,” Spring 2010]. True, Davis doesn’t have a lasting legacy in song, as Frank Sinatra does, but he was a pioneer in opening doors for black entertainers. He was a tremendously gifted, versatile performer who made a significant contribution to American entertainment.

Shalom Freedman
Jerusalem, Israel

To the editor:
There is a theme you dance around but do not seem to grasp: assimilation. Who was Sammy? Maybe even he did not know, but he did know what worked and how to please. That was a lesson of the times, a survival skill. African-Americans back then lived and taught that skill to their children: assimilation, or doing what you had to do to be accepted, was a middle-class must. You are missing a big point.

Sheryl Owens
Columbus, Ohio

John H. McWhorter responds:
Sheryl Owens’s idea that I, notorious for ten years of writings that urge blacks to step outside parochial tribalist ideology, cannot grasp the value of assimilation is, to put it mildly, rich. I am well aware that a black entertainer of Davis’s time had to “behave” in order to pass muster with mainstream America, but Davis was not only “behaving himself”; he was reaching outside his skin color. Remember that it was he who said, “All my life I’ve been trying to be white.” Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Nat “King” Cole, and Eartha Kitt were not given to statements like that.

My aim was to show that Davis, because of his personal demons, was unable to be comfortably black, white, or anything else and, as such, was an unfortunate individual. The mimicry, virtually lost to history, neatly illustrates this essence of the man. He could certainly put over a song, but energy only goes so far in defining artistic quality.


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