New tests send scores around state, county down sharply

Megan DeMarco

Staff writer

For months, educators, parents and students were warned that new standardized tests would mean dra­matically lower scores this year. On Wednesday, they learned just how low. Only 5 percent of Rochester School District ele­mentary and middle schoolers scored proficient on math and reading tests — last in the state save for a handful of charter schools and tiny districts that serve children with severe emotional problems.

The staggeringly low scores in Rochester and be­yond sent a ripple through the state’s education com­munity.

As local leaders pledged to improve and asked for help, state officials stressed that the results were ex­pected, a side effect of New York’s move to a more rig­orous curriculum. And critics of the growing role of standardized tests in America’s schools said the solu­tions to the problems the results underscore won’t be found by filling in more bubbles.

Statewide, 31 percent of third- through eighth­grade students met or exceeded the proficiency stan­dard on math and reading tests, down from 64.8 per­cent in math and 55.1 percent in reading.

Officials said the dramatic decrease in scores was expected after harder tests were implemented this year as part of the new Common Core curriculum. The tests were more rigorous, involved more writing and more critical thinking. State education officials cautioned against comparing this year’s scores to last year’s, saying this year set a baseline for the future.

“It’s important to emphasize that the changes in scores do not mean that schools have taught less or that students have learned less,” said State Education Commissioner John King. “These standards reflect the trajectory to college and career success.”

King said the scores will not negatively affect “district, school, principal, or teacher accountability.” He said the results will not lead districts to be targeted by the state for poor performance.

New York is one of 45 states to implement the Common Core standards, part of a national effort pushed by President Barack Obama to increase accountability in schools.

Individual students’ reports will be sent to parents in a few weeks.

Countywide, the number of third through eighth graders proficient in reading dropped from 55.7 percent last year to 32.4 percent. In math, that number dropped from 63.3 percent to 31.8 percent.

The tests drew controversy last spring, with some parents instructing their kids to opt out or refuse to take the tests. Critics said the new content was rushed through without any clear indication of what was being measured. “I wasn’t surprised but I am disheartened,” said Lisa Button, a music teacher in Brighton and mother of a rising seventh grader and ninth grader at School of the Arts. “This past year kids were just tested beyond anything that they’ve ever gone through before. It just becomes too much.”

City School District

Rochester scored worse than other urban districts. In Buffalo, 11.5 percent scored proficient in reading and 9.6 percent were proficient in math. Syracuse reported 8.7 percent proficient in reading and 6.9 percent in math. Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said he wasn’t surprised by the numbers but called them “painful,” and “unacceptable.” He said the district is taking steps to address the issue — increasing class time and expanding the school day in 20 schools next school year, replacing the leadership at some of the schools, and enforcing a stricter truancy policy.

“We’re going to have to do something drastically different,” he said. “I will do everything in my control to change the result.”

He also encouraged the community to get involved — help students with homework, make sure they have a library card, make sure they’re showing up to school. “We need help from the community to turn this result around,” he said. “We no longer can continue on this trajectory.”


Some say using tests to measure student achievement misses the point.

“It’s the impact of poverty in the classrooms and schools,” said Dan Drmacich, a former principal in the City School District. “Nobody wants to tackle that issue.” Instead of focusing on standardized tests, officials should address teenage pregnancy, stress, obesity, and other issues that can affect students academically in low-income areas, he said.

“They’re looking at kids as numbers and parts of groups as opposed to individuals,” he said. “Why don’t they start manipulating the other variables?”

David Hursh, a professor at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester, said standardized tests have been the norm for 20 years, with little to show for it. “One, this is out of hand. And secondly, it is not working and you just produced the proof by saying we have 5 percent college and career ready,” he said.

Instead of changing it, “They’ll say, ‘No we have to do more of the same, but harder.”

Button attributed part of the low scores to burnout. When her son came home, “He said ‘Mom, it was quantity over quality,’” she said. “I don’t know what they’re really measuring.”

As a parent and teacher, she said she hopes officials take a hard look at the standardized testing trend.

“There’s so many other ways you can measure how kids learn,” she said. “It doesn’t all have to be just through a standardized measurement.”

Suburban districts

Most of the suburban districts in Monroe County scored higher than statewide averages. In English, the lowest scores were East Irondequoit at 27.8 percent, Gates Chili with 31.6 percent and Greece with 31.7 percent. In Pittsford, 64.5 percent of third- through eighth-graders met or exceeded the proficiency standard, the highest in Monroe County. Pittsford was followed by Brighton with 59.8 percent, Penfield with 56.8 percent and West Irondequoit with 52.6 percent. In Math, the lowest scores were in East Irondequoit with 24 percent, Wheatland-Chili with 27.8 percent and Gates Chili with 28.6 percent proficient. About 34.4 percent met or exceeded the proficiency standard in Greece. Penfield had the highest number of students proficient in math in Monroe County with 66.9 percent, followed by Pittsford with 63.5 percent, Brighton with 52.7 percent and Honeoye- Falls-Lima with 48.6 percent.

The Monroe County Council of School Superintendents released a statement, saying the tests provide a baseline to measure the implementation of Common Core.

“We are excited about the learning opportunities that full implementation will provide and the growth that we will see in student learning over time,” the statement said. “We are confident in our outstanding students, teachers and school staff.”

MDEMARCO2@DemocratandChronicle. com

Includes reporting by Albany bureau chief Joseph Spector and staff writers Sean Lahman and Brian Sharp.

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