About half of New York City students passed math and reading exams this year, according to data released on Wednesday — scores that, on paper, represented a rise over last year.
City officials called the results an encouraging sign as school districts around the country show varied progress in efforts to help students recover from the pandemic.
Still, the gains carried a major asterisk: This year’s tests had been overhauled, and state officials warned against using them to gauge whether students in the nation’s largest public school system are recovering after schools closed three years ago as the coronavirus spread.
New York City may not have a clear, systemwide picture of where students stand— and how gaps between the most well-off and disadvantaged families have changed — until children take another gold-standard federal exam next year, some experts said.
“It’s unfortunate timing,” said Andrew Ho, a testing expert at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “The most important question we’re asking right now is about academic recovery and educational recovery. And we can’t measure it in New York this year mostly.”
Many major cities have struggled to close learning gaps for children that grew after education was severely disrupted in the pandemic. Over the past two years, a number of states have reported gains in math but slower progress in reading. Across subjects, experts say children have a lot ground to cover to match prepandemic achievement levels.
In New York City, more than 300,000 third-through-eighth-grade students typically sit for the exams in the spring, and last year’s scores showed sharp declines for students in math and steady overall performance in English compared with 2019.
This year’s exams changed after state education officials adopted new standards that outline the skills children should learn across grades. This year, for example, where a student might have once selected from multiple choices to choose an answer after solving a math equation, they might have found more open-ended prompts asking them to explain how they arrived at the solution.
The revamp had been planned several years before the pandemic, and states often overhaul their standardized exams. Still, the changes have muddied the picture of student progress across the city.
About 52 percent of third through eighth graders demonstrated proficiency in math this year, a 12-point jump on paper from children who took the test in 2022. Half of students passed the English language arts test, a roughly three-point rise.
The schools chancellor, David C. Banks, said the scores were “extremely encouraging,” while acknowledging that the scores were not directly comparable.
School officials noted that longstanding gaps between white and Asian students and their Black and Latino peers had shrunk: The gapbetween white and Black students in both math and English declined by about two points.
Even before the state’s recent overhaul, long-term comparisons of student performance on the tests were impossible. Over the past several decades, nearly everything about the exams has changed, from the length of the tests to the number of examination days.
Zachary Warner, an assistant commissioner in the state Education Department who oversees testing, said officials view the test results as a new baseline rather than a point of comparison. “We very much expect to keep things stable for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Mr. Warner also warned that, even in regular times, the scores often represent one piece of a more complicated puzzle. Many districts are grappling with troubling setbacks in student mental health and well-being since the pandemic, for example.
“Do we understand that a one-day or a two-day test may not give you the whole picture of students? We certainly do,” Mr. Warner said, encouraging families to consider “the big full picture.”