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More Buffalo schoolchildren are meeting minimal state reading standards, but a majority of them fall short of being as proficient as educators say they should be.

That's the upshot of test results released this week by city school officials, who are heartened by numbers showing that:

Several years of improved scores indicate that elementary pupils here have slightly better reading skills than schoolchildren in the other big-city districts upstate.

The reading skills of Buffalo elementary pupils are close to the national average and better than what previous tests had indicated.

The test results offered sobering news, as well.

The language skills of city pupils, including writing and spelling, lag behind national norms.

Moreover, only about one-third of elementary pupils are proficient in reading, and fewer than a quarter of them have up-to-par language skills. Buffalo is not alone, however, as a majority of elementary pupils across the nation are posting test scores that indicate a lack of proficiency.

City school officials are heartened by the test results because they show that the district has made steady improvement in recent years.

"I'm just delighted. We're on an upward trend," said School Board Member Florence D. Johnson of the Ferry District.

The district released two sets of test scores Wednesday. The most encouraging involve the results of state-mandated exams that gauge the reading competency of third- and sixth-graders. The results show that a growing number of pupils are scoring high enough on the tests to meet state minimal standards.

The most dramatic increase has been among third-graders: The number meeting the minimum threshold has increased from 73 percent in 1995 to 89 percent this year.

Buffalo pupils are faring slightly better than those in the other large upstate districts -- Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers.

Marion Canedo, the district's director of reading, said the numbers show that Buffalo "is on the right track."

"We're not done yet, and we have a long way to go, but we're excited," she said.

She noted that the state standards are minimal and cautioned board members about getting too excited about the progress. Indeed, to meet the minimal state standards, a sixth-grader must only display a fourth-grade reading level.

For that reason, the second set of standardized tests administered by the district, called Terra Nova, provide a more telling look at student achievement. They show that the reading skills of city pupils are close to the national average and better than what had been reported in previous years.

A second measure of where educational experts say the students should be in terms of skills offers a less encouraging picture.

While the numbers vary among grades, generally speaking only about one in three elementary pupils in the city has proficient reading skills, and only about one in four is properly grounded in language skills such as writing and spelling. This means that a majority of city pupils are in need of some type of remediation, especially in the language area, where an alarming number of city pupils are seriously deficient, including 51 percent of eighth-graders.

Nevertheless, Buffalo's overall numbers on the Terra Nova test are better than expected and can be attributed to a number of factors, beginning with the exam itself. It was first administered in city schools last spring and is considered a more sophisticated and accurate measure of student skills than the test the district previously used.

The district's renewed emphasis on reading is another factor. At the insistence of the Board of Education, the district re-established the job of reading director a year ago, and Mrs. Canedo has put together a comprehensive and energetic program.

Schools with low reading scores have been targeted for special attention, and all of them posted solid improvements. Virtually every classroom teacher in the district has received additional training in reading instruction at about 200 sessions in the last year. Librarians, reading teachers and school-level administrators have developed reading support teams to help classroom teachers. And many of the district's top reading teachers have started helping their colleagues.

"If there's a single thing that's making this work, it's focus," Mrs. Canedo said. "We had a target, a plan and follow-through. There was no fooling around."

The enthusiasm level among the school staff also has been a big factor, she said, noting that principals, teachers and support staff have embraced the mission with vigor.

"I've been here almost 30 years, and I've never seen anything like this," she said.

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