Good grades and high test scores don’t always mean much. Photo: Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu on Unsplash

The 2023-2024 academic year had already begun when New York City finally released outcomes from state English Language Arts (ELA) and Math exams administered to third through eighth graders in the spring of 2023. 

One parent, who asked to remain anonymous, said the results were unexpected. “Last year was (my son’s) best year in school academically. He was above reading level and excelled in math. His report card was predominantly 4s. We received our state test scores yesterday and he received a 2 in ELA and 3 in math. I am absolutely shocked. I’m honestly lost for words.”

She isn’t the only one. According to an August 2023 article in Time Magazine

Many American parents would be shocked to know where their kids were actually achieving. Nationally, 90% of parents think their children are reading and doing math at or above grade level. In fact, 26% of eighth graders are proficient or above in math and 31% are proficient or above in English… What’s worse, 80% of parents say they are confident they understand how their child is achieving academically, and more than three-quarters say they feel their kids are prepared to enter and succeed at college and in the workplace. They don’t seem to know there’s a problem.

This problem has been rampant in NYC for years. For instance, in 2022, my daughter got A’s on her report card — but barely passed her Regents exams. As far back as 1999, some schools graduated entire classes of students with A and B averages — while not a single one was judged proficient on a state test.

This isn’t a concern for all parents.

“Standardized tests show only the test taker’s ability to take an exam, not any substantive knowledge,” said mom Victoria Bayoneto. “They mean nothing for any other purpose. I can’t believe parents think it is reflective of any substantive learning.”

But this is bigger than any one child. Test scores for 2023 can’t even be compared to those from previous years because the latest assessments were not only written based on reworked standards, but the benchmarks for passing were normed against scores from the 2021-22 Covid academic year — the worst in NY state’s history. 

“My kid scored a perfect score on math and near perfect on English,” said mom Michelle Lee. “She mentioned that the test was very easy and all her classmates mentioned the same, finishing up much earlier than before. I believe they made the test easier this year to prop up the pass rates.”

So now, all those straight-A kids will also have perfect test scores. A win-win for everyone! What’s wrong with that?

Here’s what’s wrong with that…

According to Associated Press:

At many universities, engineering and biology majors are struggling to grasp fractions and exponents. More students are being placed into pre-college math, starting a semester or more behind for their majors…. Colleges largely blame the disruptions of the pandemic, which had an outsize impact on math…. “It’s not just that they’re unprepared, they’re almost damaged,” said Brian Rider, Temple’s math chair. “I hate to use that term, but they’re so behind.”…. As with other learning setbacks, math issues are most pronounced among Black, Latino, low-income and other vulnerable students.

This is a worry for parents like Ingrid Chai. “We’re very concerned about the huge disparity between state scores and report-card grades. I am thoroughly convinced the education these children are getting is to prepare them to pump gas and work in an Amazon warehouse,” she said. “We’re frightened our children will fall behind. If a student is getting an A in class and doing poorly on a state exam, it’s not because said student is a “bad tester” because I don’t believe that’s real, it’s because the student doesn’t know the material.”

I’m fortunate. When my daughter’s grades didn’t match her test scores, her dad, a math and physics teacher, stepped in to fill the gap.

But what about the majority of NYC and other American students, whose parents don’t even realize how far behind they are? Families have been repeatedly told that “it’s the teacher — not the standardized test — who will recognize a student’s true abilities.” Their report cards are good. So we don’t have a problem.

We have a problem. 

Students who enter college unprepared to do the work necessary for their major are more likely to drop out. Those who need to enroll in remedial classes take longer to graduate and spend more money on their education. 

Forbes calculates:

Only 10% of students in remediation at two-year schools finish their degree in three years; at four-year non-flagship universities, 35% of students who must take a remedial class earn a degree after six years.

And even those who manage to make it to the finish line are less skilled in the STEM subjects which not only make the most money — a personal good — but also the ones most desperately needed to tackle the critical problems of the 21st century — a societal good. 

For parents looking to avoid the shocking disconnect of their student’s grades not matching their standardized test scores, one thing you can do is to keep an eye on your child’s in-class assessments. A veteran NYC teacher explains, “Grades can often be higher than state tests because grades also include completed homework assignments, class participation and extra-credit work. In addition, some teachers give partial credit for any work attempted on an in-class test, something standardized tests don’t do. So if you want a more realistic view of how your child is performing, look at their in-class tests. Count the questions they actually got right, versus the ones where they got partial credit. This will give you a better idea of how they’ll score on a non-curved assessment.”

Do you feel like your student needs extra help? See below for free resources:

  • The NYPL has partnered with Brainfuse to offer free online homework help from one-on-one tutors, daily from 2 to 11 p.m. Available in English and Spanish, from early elementary through high school grades, in core subject areas.
  • EduMate NYC provides free tutoring services in multiple to students of underserved communities across New York. Students are matched with a teaching fellow for one hour of one-on-one tutoring per week. Request a tutor here.
  • A Little Joy Initiative provides virtual tutoring services free of charge for students in grades K-8 from low-income, underserved families. Sign up here.
  • The Adolescent Literacy Program is an after school reading and writing program in 10 public middle schools that helps struggling sixth, seventh and eighth graders develop their reading, writing and public speaking skills. Learn more.

Join the Conversation


  1. Yes, we have a huge problem. But what can parents do? We can’t afford private schools. Good public schools are out of district, few seats, screened schools are out of reach. So what are parents in 3rd, 4th or 5th grade for example supposed to do to get them into a good middle school? After school stem classes? Academic enrichment? What can be done to help our kids who have no choice but be part of a failing system?

    1. The majority of middle schools are now unscreened, which means your child will be accepted by lottery. Their elementary school grades and/or test scores don’t matter. Very few middle schools pick their students based on academic achievement in previous grades.

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