So many New York City students received extra time and other accommodations on a respected national test this year that several testing experts are saying the results should be considered invalid.
On the test known as the nation's report card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, New York state gave accommodations to more fourth-graders than any other state in the nation, and New York City gave more help than any of the ten other major cities that participate in a separate city-by-city comparison. On three of four tests the accommodation rate hovered around 20%. On the last — a fourth-grade math exam city officials are trumpeting as evidence the Bloomberg administration's schools program is working — the rate was 25%.
The math test this year showed the city's fourth-graders making record gains, with 79% of students reaching the basic level, up from 73% in 2005 and 67% in 2003. At the same time, the number of students receiving legally allowed accommodations, such as extra time to take the test, having the test read out loud, and receiving a translation into the student's native language, more than doubled, to 25% this year from 12% in 2003.
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Shown the numbers, several testing experts said they were shocked.
"That's a percentage which is large enough basically to invalidate the test," a professor at New York University who has advised the city and federal government on standardized testing, Alan Siegel, said. "When you change the statistics for 25% of the people who are guaranteed to be at the lower end, that's going to have a tremendous impact."
An educational statistician who has authored multiple studies of NAEP, both independently and as a consultant to the federal Education Department, Donald McLaughlin, said he could not recall seeing accommodations figures as high as New York City's this year. He said the trend was reason to "be very suspicious" about claims academic achievement is increasing.
Mayor Bloomberg has staked his political career on the success of an effort to turn around the city's public schools, and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, has been touting the NAEP test's results for New York City as proof the project is a success. In a long letter to a group of about 100,000 teachers, bureaucrats, and community members yesterday, Mr. Klein analyzed the results of this year's test closely, concluding it told "a story of good progress."
He did not mention the accommodation figures.
Students who are not proficient in English and students with disabilities, including physical impairments like blindness and mental ones such as Attention Deficit Disorder, are eligible for accommodations. But the basic question of whether these measures either level the playing field or give students an extra boost has never been definitively answered in a research study.
A 2003 report by the federal Department of Education concluded that accommodations open access for some students but "may also make the test easier by removing parts of the target skill domain — skills that students in non-accommodated conditions must also master." This year's reports of the NAEP test results carry a warning that changes in accommodation policies can lead to changes in performance on the test without any changes in student knowledge.
The city Education Department said policy changes were behind the rise in accommodations, including several policies that have increased the number of English language learners who take standardized tests. In New York, officials said, all English language learners are eligible for accommodations on both the math and reading test.
Whether a student receives accommodations on state tests largely determines whether the student receives them for NAEP, and a new state policy has pushed thousands of English language learners who would previously have been exempt to take state reading tests.
A senior policy advisor to Chancellor Klein, Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, said that state policy and a push to improve schools' inclusion of English language learners in the assessment process were behind the jump in accommodations.
She said that, if anything, the additional accommodations would cause scores to drop, pointing out that, in 1998, the year NAEP began permitting accommodations, scores fell.
A Kentucky-based education analyst, Richard Innes, said that drop occurred because many students who had previously been excluded from taking the test were included.
He said that the rise in New York City was part of a national trend — likely a response to pressure to show improvements on tests.
"The schools are figuring out: Gee, I've got a weak-performing student. If I consider him learning disabled, he's going to get a higher score on the test," Mr. Innes said.
Ms. Bell-Ellwanger said New York City gives out accommodations only to students who truly need them. "We're not talking about students that have test-anxiety, that are perhaps higher-performing but the parents feel they need more test time or something," she said.
The director of research at the Albany-based Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability, Jason Brooks, said the accommodation rates contain a lesson for NAEP: to be a true nation's report card, it should follow a single set of guidelines for handing out accommodations.
A professor at New York University who headed the city's testing program in a prior administration, Robert Tobias, said the accommodation rates raise questions but do not invalidate NAEP and do not prove any foul play. Just as likely as deliberate gaming, he said, is that New York is doing a better job of leveling the playing field for special-needs students than other states.
The director of a New York-based math education advocacy group, Elizabeth Carson, first noticed the accommodation rates and pointed them out to The New York Sun.