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Math and ELA scores are on a roller coaster in New York. Here's why.

If your kids are taking the state standardized test in English language arts this week, or in math next month, don’t be surprised to find out they’re not as skilled in either subject as New York thinks they should be.

Most kids aren’t.

While that can vary from school to school and grade to grade, on average a little more than a third of all students who took the grades 3 to 8 assessments in Erie and Niagara counties last year were deemed "proficient" in ELA, state data shows. They scored better in math, but proficiency still eluded more than 60 percent of students.

It’s all part of this roller coaster ride kids have been on over the past decade or more while taking New York State’s standardized tests.

One year they’re riding high, with test results that show a vast percentage of students skilled in reading and math. The next year, scores nose-dived across the board.

It’s not that kids got any less smart. It’s that New York’s accountability system has evolved over the years by changes in standards, scoring and how tests are administered.

That has made it difficult to determine student growth over time and has continued to stir debate about how best to measure learning, with critics contending the test scores don't jibe with other measures of student performance like graduation rates or Regents exam results.

This year is no different.

In fact, you may be hearing some chatter this week with the start of the state testing season, as the New York State United Teachers union calls for fixing the benchmarks used to determine whether or not your student is proficient.

“Parents and teachers should be asking why the proficiency rates on the 3 to 8 assessments are so low,” said Jolene DiBrango, NYSUT executive vice president.

Others, however, see any such change as lowering the academic bar.

“We think that’s the wrong direction,” countered Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the broad-based coalition High Achievement New York. “The last thing we need to be doing is setting expectations lower.”

A look at the state data helps explain the controversy.

(Story continues below graphic.)

New York has administered standardized tests to its students for years, but in 2006 started giving math and reading exams to all children in grades 3 to 8 to comply with federal policy.

By 2009, New York students had made sizable gains on state tests, but the state faced criticism for decreasing the number of questions students needed to answer correctly so that more would pass. The state also failed to show comparable improvement when measured against student performance nationally.

In response, New York raised what educators call “cut scores” – the level at which students are deemed proficient.

As a result, performance dropped significantly. Parents were befuddled.

As schools tried to adjust, the state again made changes in 2013 by giving a new test tied to the Common Core learning standards.

Performance plummeted again.

That garnered a lot of attention, in part, because it came at a time when state leaders sought to use the test results in teacher evaluations. Parents, unions and teachers lodged an aggressive campaign against the new tests, ultimately giving birth to the opt-out movement that has seen thousands of students refuse to take the annual exams.

While discord has quieted, 'opt out' still a spring tradition in schools

A moratorium on using test results in teacher evaluations remains in place for this year, but the teachers union has continued to press the State Education Department to reset the testing benchmarks. It ramped up its campaign this week while the spotlight was on state testing.

The teachers union argues that the proficiency rates on the 3 to 8 tests don’t match up to the student achievement later on down the road – based both on high school Regents exams and a statewide graduation rate that now exceeds 80 percent.

The union, as an example, pointed to 2016 when 24 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in math. A year later, when most of those students took the Regents exam in algebra, 74 percent passed, DiBrango said.

She pointed to similar results for students who took the 7th grade ELA test in 2013, and then the English Regents exam four years later.

“That doesn’t add up for us,” NYSUT's DiBrango said.

"If children are going to take an assessment, we want to make sure the data is reliable and accurate,” she said. “Most concerning to us is using this data to mislabel kids.”

But such comparisons are apples and oranges, Sigmund, of High Achievement New York, argued.

“What the proficiency rates measure are college and career readiness along the way,” he said. “It’s a snapshot in time of students' strengths and weaknesses.”

The State Education Department released a statement in response to the union’s campaign.

The department has experts in standardized testing providing guidance and feedback on research-based best practices, said Emily DeSantis, a department spokesperson.

DeSantis also called this year of testing an “important interim step on the roadmap” to fully implementing the so-called “Next Generation Learning Standards and Assessments,” the result of a lengthy, multiyear revision of state standards and assessments.

That transition will take full effect in the 2020-21 school year.

Compare your school’s ELA and math scores with other schools

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