TIMES AND SCHOOLS: New York City's proficiency rates!

FRIDAY, MAY 20, 2022

Let's take a look at the record(s): Long ago and far away, we performed at an annual meeting of Baltimore City teachers.

Or was it teachers from the whole state of Maryland? Actually, we think it was, but we can't exactly recall.

We were no longer a Baltimore City Public Schools teacher ourselves. Operating now as a comedian, we joked about the various "simple solutions" we Baltimore teachers had been encountering over the past dozen years.

We'll briefly recall that moment below. First, let's focus on an important question:

How serious is the "literary crisis" Mayor Eric Adams is (said to be) hoping to "turn around?"

In a recent report in the New York Times, a young reporter framed the situation that way. The mayor had proposed a plan "to turn around a literacy crisis in New York City," she inexpertly said.

Four paragraphs later, this young reporter described the shape and the size of the "crisis." Once again, and for the last time, this is what she wrote:

New York [City] is facing a literacy crisis: Fewer than half of all third to eighth graders and just 36 percent of Black and Latino students were proficient on the state reading exams administered in 2019, the most recent year for which there is data. Research suggests that the coronavirus pandemic has only worsened those outcomes.

Fewer than half of Gotham's kids were proficient on the 2019 reading exams, the young reporter said. And not only that:

Thanks to the pandemic, things are believed to be worse today. Black and Hispanic kids seemed to have the lowest rates of proficiency back in 2019.

Question! Does it make sense to suppose that Mayor Adams can "turn [that situation] around?" Also this:

In the vast sweep of things, just how severe is that crisis?

The New York Times rarely bothers itself with questions of that type. The famous and famously upper-class newspaper rarely assigns itself the task of defining the shape and the size of this problem. 

Today and tomorrow, we'll try to show you some basic data—data from the annual New York State exams, but also from the National Assessment of Education Progress (Naep), the federally-run program which is considered to be the gold standard of domestic educational testing.

What is the shape and the size of New York City's "crisis?" Below, we'll run you through the types of information you'll never find in the New York Times, which routinely restricts its focus to kids who might end up at Yale.

We'll start with the annual New York State exams—the exams which Lola Fadulu cited in her report for the Times.

The New York State exams

Fewer than half of New York City students were proficient on the state reading exams in 2019, Fadulu noted in her lengthy report.

As best we can tell, that's an accurate statement. (It's amazingly hard to find full data sets from New York City for this annual testing program.) That said, we should quickly add this:

Across the entire state of New York, the proficiency rate seems to have been slightly lower than it was in New York City. New York City's proficiency rate trumped that of the state as a whole!

At this official site, the state of New York reports that the proficiency rate for the entire state stood at 45 percent. In Gotham, the overall proficiency rate was slightly higher. 

In Gotham, the proficiency rate on the 2019 reading exam seems to have been 47.4 percent. That is indeed "fewer than half," but it's slightly higher than the proficiency rate for the state as a whole. 

And not only that! If you "disaggregate" those test results—if you look at the proficiency rates for different groups of kids by ethnicity and race—then Gotham's kids tended to outperform their peers across the state in those measures too. At the Manhattan Institute, Ray Domanico broke it down as shown:

DOMANICO (3/26/20): Students in every racial group in NYC traditional public or charter schools outperform their peers in the rest of the state.


In traditional public schools, white students in New York City score well above white students in the rest of the state. Other racial groups do better in NYC than in the rest of the state by smaller margins than white students.

That may not be what a subscriber might be inclined to suspect. As best we can tell from the scattershot availability of reliable data, Domanico's account is fully accurate, at least as far as it goes.

That said, several problems lurk. For starters, this doesn't erase the "achievement gaps" found within these data. Here are the proficiency rates for different groups of kids in the New York City Public Schools:

Proficiency rates, 2019 statewide reading exams
New York City Public Schools, Grades 3-8
White kids: 66.6%
Black kids: 35.0%
Hispanic kids: 36.5%
Asian ancestry kids: 67%

Those are the data on which Fadulu drew in her brief account of the "literacy crisis" the city is facing—the literary crisis the mayor's new plan is (said to be) designed to "turn around."

Is there any reason to believe that the mayor's plan might accomplish something like that? We're going to guess that the answer is no, for reasons we'll touch on below.

Now for a few other problems:

A significant number of parents across the state of New York refuse to let their kids take the annual statewide exams. Our guess would be this:

Those refusals may tend to tilt the results of the statewide tests in the favor of Gotham's kids.

With that in mind, we'll turn to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federally-run testing program we mentioned above. 

On the Naep. the bar for proficiency is set a good deal higher than on the New York State exams. (In the end, these are always subjective assessments.) 

Some experts have said that the bar for "proficiency" on the Naep is set artificially high. Keeping that assessment in mind, we'll show you Grade 8 proficiency rates from the 2019 Naep for New York City, for New York State, and for the nation's public schools as a whole.

We'll present those data tomorrow. As you will be able to see, Gotham's kids will no longer be outperforming their statewide peers in every case. Also, they won't be outperforming their counterparts nationwide in every case, though in general they'll come fairly close.

While we're at it, please remember this:

In the end, "proficiency" is a subjective assessment. You can't measure a student's "reading proficiency" in the same precise and "objective" way you can measure his height and his weight. 

That said, the achievement gaps are still visible, and are quite substantial, in the Naep reading data. This is part of a long-standing American "literary crisis" which does, in fact, need to be "turned around."

Evening at the Teachers' Meeting: a comedy performance

Long ago and far away, we entertained a group of Baltimore City and (we think) Maryland public school teachers. 

If memory serves, the commissioner was there. She was quite good-natured and gracious.

We joked about the endless array of miracle cures which urban teachers of that era had been asked to negotiate—the endless array of programs designed to "turn around" our nation's public school problems.

We recall joking about the one-year reign of "open classrooms"—the weird idea that there shouldn't be any actual walls between kids in different classrooms. 

That revolutionary idea came and went within the space of a single year. From there, it was on to the next miracle cure. And yes, the audience laughed.

Over the past sixty years, many proposals have come and come—proposals designed to "turn around" the deeply engrained shortcomings in our public schools. In the modern era, newspapers like the New York Times no longer seem to care about matters like this, or about the vast number of good, decent kids who are involved, through no fault of their own, in this undesirable situation.

Mayor Adams has made a proposal. We applaud him for his interest in the vast array of Gotham's kids, as opposed to the top few percent.

That said, no experienced person with an ounce of sense would accept his proposal at face value. The fact that his intentions seem to be pure doesn't mean that his ideas are sound.

Meanwhile, sure enough! When the mayor released his plan, the New York Times assigned a young non-specialist to report on the proposal. 

Lola Fadulu is very bright; as far as we have ever heard, she's done everything right in her life. But the Times was showing its endless disdain for Gotham's kids when it made that assignment.

Is there  any reason to think that the mayor's proposal can "turn around" New York City's public schools?

History suggests that the answer is no—that experienced and savvy people should function here as skeptics.  On the brighter side, you won't likely be asked to encounter such downers in the New York Times (or in the Washington Post).

When it comes to New York City's schools, the New York Times writes about the top few percent—the kids who might end up at Yale, or maybe just at Brown.

It throws the rest of the students away. This pattern is quite well established. 

We've never seen a "career liberal" journalist say even one word about this journalistic preference. Dearest darlings, use your heads! It simply isn't done!

In part, this is who, and this is what, our self-impressed, endlessly moralizing blue tribe really is. 

We care about black kids when they get shot (but only when they get shot by policemen). Other than that, we pay such good and decent kids amazingly little mind.

This doesn't mean that we're bad people over here in our tribe. It simply means that we're people people. 

It tends to suggest that, in the end, our treasured journalistic elites just don't ginormously care. They do like to entertain and edify us with endless dreck like this:

In Court, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard Dress to Suggest

None of this is Fadulu's fault. This is in no way her doing.

Tomorrow: For whatever it may be worth, proficiency rates from the Naep


  1. "In part, this is who, and this is what, our self-impressed, endlessly moralizing blue tribe really is. "

    Meh. Your tribe is much worse than just "self-impressed, endlessly moralizing".

    If fact, dear Bob, "self-impressed, endlessly moralizing" is nothing; no one cares about your moralizing. Moralize away, all you want.

    Right now your tribe, your liberal death-cult, is performing nuclear brinkmanship that's very likely to kill all of us. Shouldn't you be talking about that, dear Bob?

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  3. Somerby himself examines the data and states:

    "That said, the achievement gaps are still visible, and are quite substantial, in the Naep reading data. This is part of a long-standing American "literary crisis" which does, in fact, need to be "turned around."

    In other words, Somerby agrees with what Fadulu has said about the literary [sic] crisis in NYC, yet he has now spent several consecutive days trashing Fadulu as an inexperienced reporter who shouldn't have been assigned such an article by an uncaring NY Times.

    And is this a literary crisis, or is it a literacy crisis. The two words do not mean the same thing. Somerby made this same error yesterday, so perhaps he is cutting and pasting today, as he repeats his criticisms that seem to be based on air -- his own hot air.

    While we're at it, I think it is important to remember, when comparing results for NYC with those for NY state, that NYC accounts for 8.38 million of the 19.51 million people living in the state. These figures are for all people, but the ratios should be similar for children in 8th grade (those taking the NAEP). What would the results for the state look like if the redundant numbers who also live in NYC were excluded? The NY Times has reported rural schooling problems. That suggests that NYC may be pulling up the average substantially. That may be true, but it may also be true that there are far fewer minority children living upstate. My point is that inclusion of a very large percentage of test-takers from NYC in the statewide results is going to conceal what may be happening elsewhere. If Somerby does not adjust for that, his comments about such a comparison will be meaningless, statistically speaking.

    Given that tomorrow is Saturday and he hasn't yet presented the promised analysis, I will not hold my breath that it will appear tomorrow. This seems like a waste of everyone's time -- producing a NAEP analysis merely to show that he agrees with Fadulu about a literacy crisis that is being addressed by a new program that has long been desired by parents of children with learning disabilities. Why would Somerby go to the trouble of disparaging an attempt at improving reading scores among those lagging behind? Is this wrong? Was it wrong for Fadulu to describe the program, as assigned by her editor? What exactly is Somerby's beef with anyone today? Perhaps tomorrow will tell, but this really doesn't seem to be worth the effort -- not because the kids aren't worth it, but because trashing a young, female, black reporter doesn't seem to be worth it.

  4. "If memory serves, the commissioner was there. She was quite good-natured and gracious."

    What else would she be? That is her job.

  5. "We joked about the endless array of miracle cures which urban teachers of that era had been asked to negotiate—the endless array of programs designed to "turn around" our nation's public school problems."

    I think the joke is on Somerby. His intent was to disparage the parade of miracle cures, but NAEP scores have improved, even among minority kids, and the gaps have narrowed, even if not as much as hoped for. Do such improvements support Somerby's notion that attempting new programs is a boondoggle and waste of time? The scores don't support that idea at all. They suggest that improvement is difficult and occurs over a longer timespan, not that we should all give up trying new stuff.

    Somerby jokes sound very teacher-pleasing. I wouldn't be surprised if they all had a lovely time, joking about the futility of educating kids in new ways. But I think the kids have had the last laugh.

  6. "History suggests that the answer is no—that experienced and savvy people should function here as skeptics. "

    Why would past failure have anything to do with the future prospects for this new program? Naysaying is not just a downer -- it undermines public support for change of any kind.

    This particular change is based on an approach that is widely used outside the NYC schools, in private schools addressing learning disabilities. It gives teachers some additional tools for helping the 10-20% of kids who struggle with learning to read. The approach itself was first used back in the 1930s. It is not intended to replace phonics or other curricula, but to support efforts of teachers who are working with students for whom current instruction is failing. Studies of its efficacy are inconclusive -- they do not show that it doesn't work. So what is Somerby's beef with trying to help kids in NYC?

    Given Somerby's description of his comedy routine, it seems to me that he has a vested interest in showing that no one else can do better with struggling minority kids than he did, when he gave up and left teaching decades ago. If others discover more effective ways of teaching them, that may lead our narcissistic Somerby to feel an ego-threat because of his own failures to do his job. He may be excusing his own abandonment of his kids by saying to himself that no one could do better -- and now the idea that it isn't true is threatening, because it appears he left teaching to pursue comedy for his own benefit. And why shouldn't he? But he may have staked his identity as a good person on that dedication which he abandoned the moment he no longer needed teaching to evade the draft.

    Kids with learning disabilities are not stupid. They can learn when helped in the right way. Instead of becoming a reading specialist or special ed teacher, Somerby left teaching and gave up on his classroom. That's OK if his heart wasn't in it. But insisting that all of NYC must give up on them too, in order to justify Somerby's choices, isn't fair to those kids, their parents, or the people of NYC. Somerby needs to use his waning years to come to terms with his own choices -- not blame young, female, black journalists for writing things that make him feel bad about himself.

  7. You can find research on why the people with power doesn't seem to care. Berkeley studies have found that a person put in charge of a fake agenda to rewrite school rules will eat the cookies on the table faster, fancy cars are the most likely to not slow down for pedestrians, and that the measurement of heart rates in response to a sad news headline shows a more powerful physical response the less money you have.

    This has been covered by NPR and other outlets, but usually, power is not stated as a form of bias. Maybe it's just people don't understand each other, or have different philosophies about taxation.

    The thing I wish America would realize is, until we challenge money in politics, no amount of fundraising and marches downtown are going to persuade enough rich people that healthcare needs to change, our energy needs to change... There are a handful of millionaires with I guess enough good upbringing and morals that they can pick the right fight, but we can't rely on electing good people only, and hoping the educated writers who work for fancy newspapers can make up for the whole system being run without empathy.

    1. Rich people don't need to be persuaded. Politicians, who are responsible for enacting healthcare, must be persuaded that their voters will abandon them if they do not do what their constituents want them to do.

      The system is run without empathy by those on the right because they are responding to what their voters care about. Republicans lack empathy, so their elected officials do too. The same is not true on the left. If you want to see empathy, organize and vote for those who will display empathy. Do not leave democracy up to newspapers or the opposition, who do not want what you want.

      If this becomes too discouraging in the place where you live, move to Bekeley or Portland or Boulder or some other place where more of your neighbors are interested in supporting empathetic candidates and you can live under more benign local policies. Then keep working on a national level.

  8. This is not as bad as Somerby's typical hate filled screed; having said that, after noting that their are a dearth of solutions to higher achievements for people of color in schools found in our education system, Somerby says we only care about certain kinds of racial oppression.


    Generally speaking there are limits to the success of educational reforms BECAUSE of broader societal racial oppression, mostly manifested institutionally and systemically.

    While Republicans maintain a stranglehold on our society through their undying need for dominance, there is little progress we can do towards decommodifying our basic needs and democratizing our economy, the core requirements for progress.

    Somerby gets so close, but then falls back to his zombie nonsense.