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The Chancellor's Midterm Exam


The new breeze started blowing in early June, when Bloomberg and Klein announced the results of this year’s citywide tests for third-, fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-graders. (Fourth- and eighth-graders are tested by the state.) For the first time since 1991, at least half of the city’s elementary and middle-school students performed at or above grade level. In math, the percentage rose 7.5 points, to 50 percent, while in reading, it leapt fourteen points, to 55 percent.

And the news kept getting better. In September, the results of the state math test showed a nine-point bump, to 77 percent, among fourth-graders meeting standards—this on top of a ten-point rise, to 59.5 percent, on the fourth-grade reading test. At a packed press conference at a Bed-Stuy school, Bloomberg enjoyed a Ross Perot moment, employing a potpourri of charts and graphs to hammer home his message: “The era when year-in-year-out stagnant levels of classroom performance were the norm are over.”

Many experts view the test scores less ingenuously (or less strategically) than Bloomberg does. Robert Tobias, for example, knows as much about the topic as anyone in the city. Now a professor at NYU, Tobias spent 33 years as an official at the Board of Education, the last thirteen as director of testing. Tobias is at pains to insist that he isn’t an enemy of the administration or its policies; some he likes, some he doesn’t. What worries him is that the significance of the test scores is being distorted by Bloomberg and Klein. “They’ve essentially declared victory,” he says. “Test scores have become the coin of the realm, and that’s problematic to begin with. But these scores in particular don’t prove what they claim.”

Tobias begins by noting that on the statewide tests, the city’s performance more or less tracked the results in other regions around New York. In math, the city has done a bit better; in reading, a bit worse. “Is that evidence that the Bloomberg-Klein policies have resulted in the improvements? Absolutely not,” he says.

Tobias then turns to the city tests, observing first that math scores began rising before Bloomberg took office. “It started when Harold Levy was chancellor and made math a priority,” he says. In reading, though, the story is different: After five straight years of scores being flat, this time they shot the moon. “To a researcher, any anomaly that great looks like an outlier,” he says.

Tobias suspects that other factors besides Klein’s reforms are at work. He points to the fact that test preparation has become borderline obsessive. Exemptions for students not fluent in English have also increased appreciably. Tobias speculates about a screwup in the scoring process—something that occurred more than once during his time at the BOE. Finally, he says, there is “pervasive anecdotal evidence” that this year’s tests were “more child-friendly” because the reading passages were more engaging.

Klein accuses Tobias and other skeptics of missing the forest for the trees. “We have the state tests, city tests, math, reading—and if you look at them, grades three through eight, the orders of magnitude improvement are not explainable by chance,” he says. What about the increases in other parts of the state? “They’ve been working on this, too. It’s not like people everywhere haven’t been focusing.”

Yet Klein admits that the extent of the increases took him by surprise. “I’m not going to hustle you,” Klein adds. “One year’s test scores are not the measure of any reform. If next year we regress to the norm, that tells you all you need to know. But if next year we see the same kinds of results, that tells you all you need to know.”

Bloomberg, of course, already knows everything he needs to know about the test scores: They rendered his road to reelection immeasurably smoother. On the September afternoon of his press conference in Bed-Stuy, a new Quinnipiac University poll showed that public approval of his handling of education had hit 52 percent—its highest level ever. But Bloomberg also got some troubling news that day on the education front: For the first time in the protracted contract tangle with the union, Randi Weingarten was talking strike.

At 48, Weingarten is tiny and birdlike, with sharp features and chestnut hair. A graduate of Cornell and Cardozo School of Law, she became president of the UFT in 1998. By the accounts of both her friends and foes, her position atop the UFT entails a balancing act. Her membership is split between moderates and militants, and in order to maintain her authority, she often finds it necessary to adopt more extreme postures than she might if she were representing only herself. “Randi is a pragmatist, not an ideologue,” says one of her allies. “By instinct, she wants to make a deal.”

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