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How Have ELA and Math Achievement Levels Changed Over Time?

As part of a series examining progress and disparities in New York City schools, this Spotlight post focuses on trends over time in standardized test scores for elementary and middle school students. As seen in the slideshow below, since 2000, achievement in math and English Language Arts (ELA) in grades 3 through 8 have generally improved, although multiple changes to state tests and standards for proficiency complicate comparisons.

As shown in Slide 1, from 2000 to 2009, ELA proficiency rates improved to the tune of almost 30 percentage points; math proficiency rates improved by nearly 50 points. When standards changed in 2010, the share of students deemed proficient dropped dramatically, but the rate improved steadily for the next two years, until standards changed again in 2013. The 2013 test results showed only about 30 percent of NYC students meeting proficiency in math and about 26 percent in ELA. Between 2013 and 2018, proficiency rates once again rose—by 13 points in math and, in ELA, by about 21 points.

While overall test scores improved within each testing regime, slides 2 and 3 demonstrate that large disparities associated with race/ethnicity have persisted. As shown in Slide 3, in 2000, the gap in math proficiency rates between White and Asian students, on the one hand, and Black and Latino students, on the other, was about 40 percentage points. This gap decreased a great deal during the following years—to just over 12 percentage points in 2009. However, when standards were increased, disparities grew larger again. Since 2010, math proficiency rates for Asian and White students consistently have been more than 30 percentage points higher than for Black and Latino students. Trends have been similar for ELA proficiency rates (see Slide 2).

Slides 4 and 5 highlight that there are also disparities related to neighborhood poverty. As with race, the performance gaps between students who lived in low/moderate-poverty neighborhoods and those who lived in high-poverty neighborhoods widened when standards were increased. In math, for example, in 2009, students who lived in high-poverty neighborhoods came within almost 10 percentage points of their peers who lived in low/moderate-poverty neighborhoods. However, by 2018, those gaps stood at almost 20 percentage points. These trends have been apparent for both ELA and math.

Finally, as shown in Slides 6 and 7, math and ELA proficiency have looked somewhat different in elementary and middle school. For both subjects, across most years, a much larger percentage of students in grade 4 met standards than their middle school peers. This changed for ELA, beginning in 2013, when 4th and 8th graders achieved proficiency at similar rates.

Big Questions

  • Why have disparities associated with race and income expanded when ELA and math standards were increased? Are schools with higher populations of White and Asian students generally able to respond more quickly to changes in state standards (e.g., because of teacher experience and qualifications or other resources)?
  • To what extent are these tests a valid measure of student learning? Are they culturally biased?
  • Why have elementary students in NYC performed better than middle school students on state tests (particularly in math, where these differences were evident through the entire period we analyzed)?
  • What other measures might provide more nuanced information about student achievement in NYC schools?


This post was authored by James Kemple, Chelsea Farley and Kayla Stewart. 

This series was published in Spring 2019.

What else should we be asking about ELA and math achievement in NYCschools? Let us know via email.

How to Cite this Spotlight: 

Kemple, J., Farley C., and Stewart, K. 2019. "How Have ELA and Math Achievement Levels Changed Over Time?" Spotlight on NYC Schools. Research Alliance for New York City Schools.