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Student achievement was at the top of the agenda when James A. Williams was the school superintendent in Dayton, Ohio, for eight years.

But while "reform" was the buzzword and expectations ran high, the results were disappointing.

When ninth-grade achievement tests were launched in Ohio in 1995-96, Dayton's scores ranked near the bottom in relation to the state's comparable urban districts.

And when Williams' contract was bought out three years later, ninth-grade achievement continued to be below the levels in other Ohio cities.

Small, incremental gains fell far short of the hopes of Dayton school officials.

"We had very high expectations, and it didn't come out the way we thought it would," said Dick Penry, who then was a Dayton high school principal and who describes himself as a strong supporter of Williams. "(Williams) was very frustrated, we didn't show the growth he anticipated. Everybody was frustrated."

In Buffalo, the district's position paper describing what it is looking for in a superintendent repeatedly emphasizes the importance of improving student achievement.

Williams, who was superintendent in Dayton from 1991 to 1999, is expected to be named Buffalo superintendent soon and to take office in July. He will appear at a community forum from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday in the Makowski Early Childhood Center, 1095 Jefferson Ave.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Williams said his record in Dayton should be judged on a broad range of considerations, including the improvement of students as they progressed through high school, graduation rates and the percentage of students going on to college.

"I can assure you that what I have seen in Buffalo is going to get better because of what I bring to the table," he said. "That's not an issue."

Williams said that his record is solid and that his skills have improved throughout his career.

"I think you mature as a person from one year to the next," he said. "It's called academic growth and lifelong learning."

Clayton Luckie, a Dayton Board of Education member during much of Williams' tenure, said test scores remained low despite major efforts to improve them.

"No one was happy," said Luckie, who has a favorable overall opinion of Williams. "The community wasn't happy. (Williams) was attacking it where he thought he could make a difference."

Like New York and many other states, Ohio places a heavy emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing, and instruction, curriculum and teacher training are geared toward improving measurable student performance.

In Ohio, much of that effort revolves around ninth-grade proficiency tests in math, reading, writing, science and citizenship. Students must pass all five tests at some point in their high school careers in order to graduate.

When the tests were first given in 1995-96, Dayton ranked seventh among Ohio's "Urban Eight" school districts on four of the tests and last on the fifth, according to a Buffalo News analysis.

In 1998-99, Williams' last year as superintendent, Dayton ranked seventh in three subject areas and sixth in the other two.

During that time period, Dayton's proficiency rating improved slightly in three subjects. It increased to 70.6 percent, from 65.6 percent, in reading; to 34.1 percent, from 28.1 percent, in math; and to 51.2 percent, from 47.9 percent, in citizenship.

Increases were more dramatic in science, where the proficiency level rose to 41.8 percent, from 9.8 percent, and in writing, where it increased to 76.3 percent, from 54.4 percent.

The other members of the Urban Eight are Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo and Youngstown, all of which state education officials consider comparable with Dayton in poverty levels, property tax wealth and family education levels.

Williams said that in the first year the ninth-grade proficiency tests were given, just 17 percent of Dayton's students initially passed all five segments. By the time those students became seniors, he said, 98 percent had passed all five and were able to graduate.

"Look at the end result," he said. "Did these kids graduate from high school? We did not leave any kids out there not graduating because of the proficiency tests."

Andrew Maddigan, a spokesman for the Buffalo Public Schools, said that it might be unfair to compare Dayton with other Ohio cities without examining budgets, special education and bilingual enrollment, demographic factors and other considerations.

"We're making an assumption that all these cities are created equal," he said.

Instead, Maddigan emphasized Dayton's improvement on the proficiency tests.

"I don't think you need to make excuses for a district that improves from year to year," he said. "I think that's a feather in his cap. I don't think that reflects unfavorably on him in any way."

Maddigan said the board's search committee examined data provided by the Dayton schools and by the Council of Great City Schools, but does not know if it had figures on the ninth-grade proficiency exam.

Ralph Hernandez, the Buffalo Board of Education's West District representative, said the ninth-grade results parallel his findings on other test scores in Dayton during Williams' tenure.

"The No. 1 reason for choosing a superintendent should be improving student achievement, and from what I've seen so far, I'm not impressed," said Hernandez, who opposes Williams' appointment.

Dayton fared even worse in relation to the entire state, with its proficiency ratings falling far below Ohio averages in all five subject areas. In math, Dayton's proficiency rating of 34.1 percent was less than half the state average of 68.9 percent.

That follows the pattern of other states, including New York, where big cities, including Buffalo, lag far behind state averages.

Thomas J. Lasley II, dean of the University of Dayton's School of Education, said the ninth-grade scores should be viewed in this context: High-stakes testing was first taking hold in the mid-1990s, the state did not offer curriculum aligned to the tests, and Dayton was still under a court-ordered desegregation plan that limited flexibility. "You don't just suddenly turn a district around," Lasley said. "It takes time."

However, Lasley said, student achievement was a concern in Dayton during Williams' tenure.

"I think it was uneven," he said. "There were pockets of excellence, a couple schools that evidenced remarkable growth. On the other hand, like any urban district, there were some schools not performing well at all."

Williams' supporters said he was aggressive in his efforts to lift student achievement.

They said he rewrote the district curriculum, built partnerships with businesses, beefed up before- and after-school tutorial sessions, put some schools on a year-round schedule, established an alternative high school, and underlined his message by accompanying truant officers to the homes of students who were not showing up for class.

"No mess, no nonsense" was how Luckie described Williams' approach.

But Penry said low test scores were persistent and troubling.

"The rankings of the Urban Eight stayed pretty much the same," he said. "We didn't do that well. I was a principal, and I can't make excuses. I can't tell you why Dayton only made small, incremental gains."