Bloomberg Fails Math

Mar 18, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

In its coverage of his third term swearing in ceremony, the New York Times, which almost always gives New York City Mayor Bloomberg an uncritical pass, focused on how the "new" Mayor Moneybags has become humbler and is pledged to listen to others. And the tiger can change its stripes. Give him a couple of weeks.

One hundred million dollars just barely bought Michael Bloomberg reelection as mayor of New York City. A key point, perhaps the key point, in his reelection campaign was supposed improvement in New York City schools during his eight years in office. What Bloomberg and his henchman Joel Klein call school reform hinges on accountability by teachers and administrators as measured by student performance on standardize tests. High-test scores meant bonuses. Low-test scores meant your school was closed and you were sent to the "rubber room" with other unwanted relics of the past. Well, you better save Bloomberg and Klein seats in the rubber room. If they had integrity they would both resign. But since they won't, New Yorkers should give them a taste of their own medicine.

Bloomberg touted higher student scores on New York State standardized math tests as proof that his reform plans were working. During his reelection campaign he predicted students would show "great progress" on federal tests. But student scores on the federal math tests show no notable improvement for fourth and eighth graders. While 71 percent of the city's eighth graders met the standards on the state exam this year, only 26 percent were considered proficient or better on the federal exams. In the 2009 state exams, 85 percent of fourth-grade students met state standards. Only 35 percent of the fourth-graders were proficient on the federal tests.

How can this be? How do students do well on one test and poorly on another when the tests are supposed to be equivalent?

The answer is that students in many of Bloomberg's test prep academies do little more than take sample tests over and over again. Often they practice with the previous year's test, with many questions that will magically reappear.

I witnessed this in two New York City middle schools (one was in the Bronx and the other was in Brooklyn), where I supervised student teachers and I have no reason to believe this does not happen in most of the schools with large working class and poor minority black and Hispanic student populations. In both schools there was no instruction in any subject area, other than test preparation in English and math, for almost the entire school year for students in the eighth grade.

As long as teachers, principals, and schools are evaluated based on student performance on these tests, learning will be sacrificed to crank up the scores. The Bloomberg/Klein machine uses the results from the state tests to grade schools from A through F to determine teacher and principal bonuses. Principals can receive bonuses of up to $25,000 a year if they can get their students to ace the tests. The mayor and the school chancellor are also demanding that student test scores be used to decide if teachers receive tenure.

However, what the federal test scores demonstrate is that learning is being sacrificed. Whatever skills students acquire while prepping for the state tests are clearly not transferable to a new set of tests with different kinds of questions.

In 2010 the New York State English Language Arts test is at the end of April and Math is at the beginning of May. Expect students to cram for these tests all year.

Science and social studies tests will not be administered until the end of May and the middle of June. Basically, teachers will have two weeks to get students ready for each of the tests. Fortunately for the Bloomberg/Klein machine these tests are largely skills based (reading, chart, graph, cartoon, and picture analysis) so the fact that students never really studied science or history won't affect them that much on the test.

The major justification by Bloomberg/Klein for the focus on test preparation in schools where students are largely black and Hispanic and from working-class and poor families is that this approach will reduce the achievement gap. It has not even done that. While the gap between black and Hispanic students and white and Asian students narrowed on the state tests, it widened slightly on the federal tests, partly because Asian students posted higher scores than the other ethnic and racial groups.

Chancellor Klein, in a masterpiece of double speak, announced that the widening gap on the federal test was really not so "worrisome" if each group continued to improve. But he was troubled by the fact that Hispanic students in the eighth grade had not improved on the federal math tests since 2003.

In a press conference that bordered on racist, Klein even bragged that African American students in New York City, even though their performance was significantly below the performance level for White and Asian students on the federal math tests, were not doing as poorly as African American students in other parts of the state and country. According to the New York Times, Klein pointed to a chart and enthusiastically proclaimed, "Whose blacks are on top?"

Not only did the Bloomberg/Klein machine fail math, but they fail basic human decency. I can't wait to see the new humbler version of Bloomberg in 2010.