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LOOKING BEYOND THE OBVIOUS LEADS TO SOME SURPRISES

It's no big surprise that students at affluent suburban schools do well on standardized tests. In Buffalo's suburbs, we know that Clarence, Williamsville and Orchard Park schools likely will be at the top of the list when test scores are released each year.

On the state's "school report cards," they tend to get straight A's.

The question is: Does that make them the best performing schools?

Family affluence, as educators know, tends to translate into higher test scores. Wealth is a very good predictor of test scores. And high test scores are often used to measure how good a school is.

But what if you were able to measure a school's quality after removing from the equation the variables of wealth or poverty?

Wouldn't it be interesting to see which schools rise to the top of the list? Which schools are rising above -- or sinking below -- the expectations created by the relative affluence of their communities?

That, in essence, is the idea behind a two-part Buffalo News series that begins on today's front page.

Reported by Mary Pasciak, a talented Northtowns bureau reporter who has developed a specialty in education stories, the story was guided by Susan Schulman, the head of the News' investigative-reporting team.

Both staffers are deeply familiar with computer-assisted reporting techniques that can yield nuanced and meaningful stories. That kind of reporting is always subject to what Schulman calls "common sense checks" and is augmented by traditional reporting techniques such as interviewing and first-hand observation.

They also got crucial help from News research librarian Andy Bailey, who is one of our resident whizzes with statistical software. The methodology is explained in a separate story on page A8 today.

"This is something we've wanted to do for a long time," Schulman said. "There's always such a feeling of 'suburban schools are good, city schools are bad.' We wanted to examine that assumption."

Pasciak's story comes up with a list of the highest-performing elementary schools in the area. But unlike the predictable "best schools" list of the richest, and therefore the best-scoring, schools, this one has some surprises.

Two schools from Niagara Falls are among the best, as are two schools from Lockport. There are Buffalo schools on the best list, and, conversely, there are some suburban schools having problems.

Two fascinating examples -- both on the best-performing schools list -- are Smallwood Elementary in Amherst and Houghton Academy on Buffalo's East Side.

Smallwood could be expected to do well. But it did more than well, rising significantly above other affluent suburban schools, apparently because of innovative teaching methods.

"A school like Smallwood could just coast -- their students will always excel -- but they obviously kicked it up a notch," notes Schulman.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Houghton Academy, which only a few years ago had such dismal test scores that it became one of the state's "failure schools." The school on Clinton Street was threatened with being shut down if test scores did not improve. (Houghton's challenge to survive was the subject of a Buffalo News magazine cover story in January 2003.) But energetic and visionary administrators, working closely with parents and students, turned it around.

Houghton's performance -- and that of other schools that didn't let socioeconomic factors rule the day -- is inspiring, says Schulman: "They managed to beat the odds."

e-mail: editor@buffnews.com

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