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State of the New York City Public Schools


State of the New York City Public Schools

September 1, 2000
EducationPre K-12

This is the second Report Card on the New York City public schools issued by the Center for Civic Innovation, the first of which was prepared in cooperation with the Public Education Association in 1998. The “just the facts” format is designed to provide a statistical review of performance over a period of ten years, drawing on data made available by the State Education Department and the City Board of Education.

Along with recent changes in the recorded performance of students, there are more notable long term patterns that give us a fuller picture of what is happening. For example, in the short term, high school completion rates are slightly up and the scores on standardized tests have improved. The slight increase in high school completion is overshadowed by a long-term trend in which about half the students complete their studies in four years, and an additional 20% do so by the age 21. With past Regents examinations as a guide, it appears that, so long as these examinations remain rigorous, about 16% of the students in New York City will be able to meet the state’s new and more rigorous requirements for a high school diploma in the coming years.

An increasing number of students have been forsaking a traditional diploma for what has been inappropriately dubbed an “equivalent diploma” or GED. The truth is that those students who do not receive a traditional diploma are less likely to attend and do well in college. While New York will always have a large number of jobs available for unskilled workers, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a good living in the high tech world of the twenty-first century without the proper credentials. The common path that gave New York its reputation as a gateway to opportunity for many past generations begins with a high school diploma and leads to a college degree. Proportionately less than half as many city students take the SAT exams for college admissions as their peers around the state. Of those who take the test, city students average 40 to 50 points lower in the various subject areas.

The recent improvements in standardized test scores administered by the State Education Department and City Board of Education are somewhat more encouraging. The rise is evident both on state tests given to fourth graders and on city tests given in other grades; and the improvement is evident across most of the city. The larger picture, however, is not so rosy. Both city and state tests indicate that about 60% of the children attending elementary and middle schools in the city are not reading at an acceptable level. Approximately 70% have not attained proficiency in math.

Within this general pattern is a large disparity in academic performance defined by race. By and large the gap between African American and Hispanic students on the low end, and white and Asian students on the upper end is profound, and it is apparent on all measures of academic performance—state tests, city tests, SAT scores and graduation rates.

The gap in performance associated with race is not unique to New York City. For the last thirty years it has been a widely recognized American phenomenon, most dramatically apparent in urban settings. The data in this report show that students who attend urban public schools throughout the state lag behind their counterparts who live in suburban and rural areas. The great danger in highlighting this fact is that it often becomes a basis for using race as an excuse for academic failure, leading to a quiet resignation about the current state of affairs in many inner-city communities. A large proportion of low-performing students get inappropriately placed in special education and bilingual education programs, where academic outcomes are even more discouraging.

When one looks more closely at the available information, something else becomes apparent. New York City has a high percentage of students who are in the lowest quartile of performance. Many of these students attend schools that end up on the state’s list of chronically low performing schools (the SURR list). In fact all but eight of the 105 schools included on this notorious list are in New York City. This list of 97 schools, as extensive as it might be, actually understates the incidence of academic failure at the school level. In fact, nearly 30 percent of the 677 elementary schools in NYC have less than 30 percent of their students reading at an acceptable level; half the elementary schools have less than 40 percent reading at an acceptable level.

The urgency communicated by this information should be clear. While the turnaround of the public school system is likely, even under the most optimistic of circumstances, to be an incremental process, there are some, all too many students who are in need of immediate relief from a culture of despair that captures chronically failing schools in the poorest communities of the city. In such places race and class have not just provided an excuse for academic failure; failure has become an implicit rationale for a continuing state of academic neglect.