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RESERVE JUDGMENT ON READING SCORES

The surprising drop in reading scores among some Buffalo public-school students might normally justify a call to action. In this case, however, parents and taxpayers would be well advised -- for now -- to just wait and see.

In results that shocked city school officials, third- and sixth-grade students did far worse than expected in the state's standardized Pupil Evaluation Program (PEP) tests taken last spring. Scores dropped at more than half the schools.

This year, 27 schools were below even minimal standards compared to 17 last year for third graders. For sixth-grade pupils, 27 schools were below minimal standards compared to 15 last year. Students reading at the minimal standards (which are really below grade level) dropped by 5 percent for third graders and 6 percent for sixth graders. Scores dropped at a majority of schools at both grade levels.

So why give the school district the benefit of the doubt? For one thing, anecdotal evidence suggests that scores dropped in districts throughout the state. So far, the evidence is mostly word of mouth from officials in one district or another. But as one school official outside Western New York said, "The state is getting reactions (from school districts) across the state, and you can guess why they're getting those reactions."

The State Education Department said it wouldn't have scores from throughout the state until at least the middle of next month. However, the largest district in the state -- New York City -- reported that its scores are down 4 percentage points for third-graders. Rochester also recorded a drop in its reading scores among third graders.

The people who run Buffalo's reading program are eager to see if the numbers in other districts show a drop, which may indicate a problem with the test, although state officials say the test manufacturer has analyzed the exam and found no difference from the one offered last year.

Nevertheless, district officials make some valid points when they caution parents and taxpayers not to jump to conclusions. In addition to what appears to be similar drops in other districts, the more difficult Terra Nova test, given to all elementary students other than third- and sixth-graders, shows the district holding its own in reading. In fact, there are marginal gains at some grade levels.

Also, the longer-term direction for reading points upward. Even with the drop this year, district scores are higher than they were in 1995 and 1996.

There could be no worse indictment of a school district than its inability to teach children to read. That's why the results of the latest PEP test were so disturbing.

Nevertheless, given the results of the Terra Nova test and what appear to be lower scores in many other districts on the PEP test, it would be premature to indict the district based on the results of this one exam.

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