Literacy at NYC schools remains low amid Mayor Adams’ focus on reading, internal data shows

Mayor Eric Adams and Schools Chancellor David Banks have made improving literacy among New York City public school students a top education priority.

But since announcing an overhaul of reading instruction and implementing new curricula in half of all elementary schools last September, the city education department has declined to release data from seasonal assessments, called “screeners,” saying it would be premature.

Gothamist has now obtained preliminary screener data shared with some public school educators that shows stubbornly low proficiency rates among students. According to the data, two-thirds of students are not meeting reading targets, which resembles literacy rates Banks slammed as a “betrayal” when he was first appointed chancellor more than two years ago. The data shows proficiency at schools using the new curricula dropped slightly more than at schools using other materials. Education officials insisted such a comparison was inaccurate because of demographic differences and other variables between the sets of schools.

Banks and other top education officials did not have a clear answer when asked when the department will be able to assess the effectiveness of the literacy overhaul, saying such a major shift will need more time to show results.

“To reset New York City’s reading and literacy foundation as an entire system is probably one of the biggest undertakings the system has ever had,” Banks said on Thursday. “And it does not happen easily.”

He added that the “screener” assessments currently lacked “real value” because the reform of reading instruction is in such an early stage and will take years.

Officials emphasized that the data that is routinely shared with teachers, principals and superintendents is useful for educators to hone instruction in individual classrooms, not for drawing systemwide conclusions. Still, it underscores the daunting challenge of getting all students to become successful readers.

Gothamist obtained the data from a New York City public schools employee with access to the education department’s “screener results explorer” database, which compiles results from five different literacy assessments used throughout the school system. The dataset did not include any notes of caution about viewing it in aggregate, though education officials insisted that doing so was a grave mistake.

The figures emerged the same week Banks announced the unexpected departure of Deputy Chancellor Carolyne Quintana, who was overseeing literacy. One expert on an advisory panel involved in the literacy effort said the data reinforced the need for a strong leader like Quintana at the helm.

The data shows:

  • Just 33.6% of New York City public school students from kindergarten through 10th grade scored “proficient” on reading assessments this winter, up slightly from 32.5% in winter 2022.
  • At the elementary schools that adopted new literacy curricula this year, proficiency declined from 36.4% in the fall to 33.6% in the winter.
  • At the elementary schools that haven’t adopted the new curricula, proficiency declined from 40.5% to 38.5% from fall to winter.
  • Reading proficiency among white and Asian students dropped more sharply from the fall to winter than among Black and Hispanic students over the same period. Asian students’ proficiency dropped from 53.1% to 48.9%; white students’ proficiency dropped from 52.5% to 48%; Black students’ proficiency dropped from 26.4% to 25.2%; and Hispanic students’ proficiency dropped from 23.9% to 21.7%.

School officials said they are still figuring out how to tally results from so many different screeners produced by different companies, which they said creates “noise” in the data when aggregated. They emphasized that new reading materials have been used in roughly half of the city’s elementary schools for just six months.

“It’s too early at this point,” Deputy Chancellor Danika Rux said in an interview with Gothamist.

Rux and other senior education officials said individual superintendents can pick from a variety of screener tests to assess students’ literacy rates within their district. But officials said using multiple assessments also makes it harder for the department’s data crunchers to calculate student performance results across all schools.

“We are not at a place where the aggregate data is useful in being able to determine success, failure, up, down for these students,” said schools spokesperson Nathaniel Styer. “That doesn’t mean that we won’t get to a place where the aggregate data will be useful. But at this point in time … it’s not helpful.”

Styer described the aggregate data as “inaccurate,” adding that the education department was still working on how to evaluate the literacy assessments altogether.

Still, some experts said the data underscores the urgency of the literacy reform effort, which is entering a new phase following a bureaucratic shakeup at the education department headquarters.

Banks earlier this week announced the departure of Quintana, who was overseeing the NYC Reads literacy initiative through her teaching and learning division. He said Quintana will leave at the end of the school year and her department will be folded into Rux’s portfolio.

“I believe that putting the tremendous central Teaching & Learning resources closer to our schools — led by local superintendents — will accelerate the work of NYC Reads,” Banks said in a note to staff.

Susan B. Neuman, an education professor at NYU who serves on the city’s literacy advisory council, said she was distressed about the change and praised Quintana’s “strong leadership.” She also questioned Banks’ plan to delegate the literacy effort to superintendents.

“I’m hoping that the city is as committed as ever to a consistent and coherent reading reform effort based on the science of reading,” she said. “The students are still significantly behind. That means that any kind of reform effort has not kicked in.”

Rux and other top education officials said they’re currently focused on classroom visits to ensure teachers have been trained on the new reading curricula and are using it for lessons.

Boosting literacy is the Adams’ administration’s signature education policy. Adams, who is dyslexic, said he wants to prevent students like him from falling through the cracks.

Banks has called it “legacy work,” a “civil rights issue” and the “educational crisis of our time.”

He and Adams have cast the city as at the forefront of a movement to shift away from disproven literacy strategies and toward instruction that aligns with research on how students actually learn to read, often called the “science of reading.” That includes a strong emphasis on letter sounds and combinations in the earliest grades, as well as vocabulary and comprehension.

In fall 2022, the administration required all kindergarten to second-grade classrooms to adopt a phonics program. In fall 2023, half of elementary schools were required to select and implement one of three vetted curricula. The rest of elementary schools will follow suit next fall.

Some parents, teachers and students have raised concerns about the new curricula. The most widely selected one, HMH Into Reading, has been criticized as boring and lacking diverse characters and perspectives.

“This curriculum has been doing the opposite from building a love for reading,” Carlo Murray, a student at the Brooklyn School for Inquiry, said at a Panel for Educational Policy meeting last week. “I love reading, my friends love reading, the whole grade loves reading, and now we all hate it.”

Multiple experts cautioned patience and sustained commitment after reviewing the data.

“It’s a hard transition,” said Debbie Meyer, a consultant with the Dyslexia Alliance for Black Children, and a member of the education department’s literacy advisory council. “You can’t expect a lot at year one and year two. It just takes longer.”

She said studies show the transformation takes five years.

The major turnaround in student literacy in Mississippi — sometimes called the “Mississippi Miracle” — took more than five years. New York City officials noted the local public school system is twice the size of Mississippi’s.

“We’re all eager to see results, us above all others,” said Styer, the schools spokesperson. “But like anyone who works in education, whether you’re New York City public schools, Mississippi or a small town somewhere, you know that you don’t see this type of change in a matter of months.”

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