Thursday, January 5, 2012

The difficulty of improving learning outcomes

Among all attempts to improve student learning outcomes in public school systems across the world, the campaign initiated in 2002 by New York City under Mayor Mike Bloomberg is arguably the most comprehensive and ambitious.

The city has implemented several reforms - accountability measures to reform the dysfunctional school system, help newly entering students to improve their academic performance, and achieve higher graduation rates. The objective is to also ensure that the city's education budget, $24 bn this year, would deliver bang for the buck. So what is the verdict after eight years?

Early last month, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released its report on student learning levels. Its assessment of the cohort of 80,000 eighth graders who joined kindergarten when the Bloomberg reforms started (and who form a natural treatment group to measure the impact of the reforms) is not encouraging,

"Reading and math achievement by New York City’s students is dismal and has remained so for almost a decade. Known as the "Nation’s Report Card", the federal test compares progress by fourth- and eighth-graders in 21 large cities. A mere 24 percent of all New York City eighth-graders read at the NAEP proficiency level. In eighth-grade math, an identical 24 percent of city students scored at or above NAEP proficiency. That amounts to a modest 6 percentile-point increase from the 2003 NAEP tests; the average eighth-grade math improvement of all U.S. big-city school districts is 12 points during that period."

The New York school system has been hit by allegations in recent past about widespread doctoring of test results. There have been revealations that the city’s spectacular increases on state reading and math tests in recent years have been due almost entirely to the deliberate lowering of pass rates. Further, it is also alleged that the city has artificially boosted its high school graduation numbers through dumbed-down Regents exams and "credit-recovery" abuses, in which students who fail courses required for graduation earn passing grades after attending a few additional Saturday sessions or turning in "extra" homework assignments.

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