Disappointing eighth-grade test results trouble local schools and those throughout the state.
Are eighth-graders too distracted by adolescent concerns to concentrate on English and math? Is the curriculum out of whack? Is the daily class schedule at fault?
No one knows for sure. But one thing is certain: Eighth-grade test scores are poor, and they're not getting much better.
Test results released Thursday in Albany show that just 45 percent of New York's eighth-graders this year earned scores at or above grade level on the state's annual English assessment test. That's an increase of just one percentage point from last year.
In contrast, 64.3 percent of the state's fourth-graders tested at grade level or above, up from 61.5 percent last year.
In Erie and Niagara counties, 36 of 37 public school districts registered better scores in fourth-grade than in eighth-grade. And in five districts -- Cheektowaga, Cleveland Hill, Lake Shore, North Collins and Niagara-Wheatfield -- the number of fourth-graders testing at grade level was at least 30 percentage points higher than the eighth-graders.
"Middle school results are disappointing," said State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills. "The lack of improvement overall gives new urgency to the changes in middle school policy now under consideration by the Board of Regents."
Mills said the Regents will review what is taught in middle school (usually defined as grades 5-8), how the daily schedule is arranged and whether the teacher certification process is working.
The state-mandated middle school improvements also could include more time spent on academics before and after school or on weekends; specific direction for principals and other school leaders; reduction of non-core subjects taught in addition to math, science, English and social studies; and a potential reconfiguration of middle schools.
There is widespread agreement among educators that part of the problem is getting middle school students to concentrate.
"It's the adolescent issue," said Delia Bonenberger, assistant superintendent of the Cheektowaga Central Schools. "We've done many, many things to get them to take it (the test) seriously. But we're not convinced everyone does."
Beyond that, there are far more questions than answers.
"None of us can figure that one out at all," said Buffalo Superintendent Marion Canedo.
The assessment tests are not part of a student's average and are used only for assessment purposes.
And several educators said the low scores don't seem to doom most of the students. Even though many eighth-graders test below grade level in both English and math, most of them go on to pass the Regents math and English exams required to graduate from high school.
"We take all of this one step at a time, year to year, and work on their strengths and weaknesses," Bonenberger said. "We look at this test as a snapshot in time."
Some local test score results:
Orchard Park had the best eighth-grade results, with 73.5 percent of students scoring at or above grade level. Williamsville, Alden and Clarence were also above 70 percent. Williamsville's Transit Middle School was the highest ranking individual school at 77.2 percent.
Clarence posted the best fourth-grade results, with 87.4 percent of the district's students at or above grade level. Alden, Amherst, Williamsville, East Aurora, Depew, Springville-Griffith Institute, Eden, Hamburg, Orchard Park, West Seneca, Lewiston-Porter and Royalton-Hartland also topped 80 percent. Hamburg's Charlotte Avenue Elementary School was the top ranking school at 97.8 percent.
Buffalo had the lowest results at both grade levels. Twenty-two percent of the city's eighth-graders scored at or above grade level, and so did 33.9 percent of the fourth-graders.
Two Buffalo charter schools had fourth-grade scores above the citywide average -- Tapestry Charter School at 90 percent and the South Buffalo Charter School at 51.9 percent. But the King Center Charter School (22.2 percent) and the Stepping Stone Academy Charter School (29.1 percent) were below the average.
In the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District, the Charter School for Applied Technology had 38.8 percent of its fourth-grade score at or above grade level, compared to 75.1 percent of the Ken-Ton schools. Applied Technology is on the city line and attracts large numbers of students from Buffalo.