Buffalo's eighth-grade math scores dropped sharply last school year, prompting criticism Thursday from State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills.
The proportion of Buffalo's eighth-graders proficient in math dropped to 24 percent from 33 percent the previous year, according to data released Thursday. At a news conference in Albany, Mills labeled that "a serious decline," adding that the 33 percent figure was "too low to begin with."
Buffalo's scores actually were higher than those in Rochester, where 20 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in math, and Syracuse, where the rate was 21 percent.
Yonkers, the state's other "big city," had 39 percent.
Mills also singled out Buffalo's fourth-grade scores for criticism, even though the overall pass rate increased 4 points to 67 percent, a few percentage points lower than the other four big upstate cities.
But the percentage of Buffalo's fourth-graders who tested at Level 1 -- or far below grade level -- increased 1 percentage point, to 7 percent. The state's other four big cities decreased their Level 1 percentages.
"That's the wrong direction," Mills said of Buffalo's figures.
In Erie County schools outside Buffalo, the overall fourth-grade proficiency rate increased 2 points, to 93 percent.
In eighth grade, Erie County schools held their own, with the proficiency rate inching up less than 1 point last year, to 72 percent. In Niagara County, the eighth-grade figure fell 4 points, to 61 percent.
Statewide, the fourth-grade pass rate rose 6 points, to 85 percent, while the eighth-grade figure dropped 2 points, to 56 percent.
Overall, Mills said minority students are making substantial gains, special-education pupils are meeting state standards in far greater numbers, and the percentage of students far below grade level is shrinking.
"Fewer students have serious academic problems," he said. "More are achieving all the standards. The reforms New York has put in effect are working."
Buffalo school officials noted that Superintendent James A. Williams has launched a series of reforms to improve student performance and pointed out that scores increased in both fourth and eighth grades the two previous years.
Constance M. Moss, a Buffalo assistant superintendent, called the city's eighth-grade scores "a significant concern," but pointed out that the fourth-grade proficiency rate has increased to 67 percent from 45 percent in three years.
"We see this steady rise in fourth grade, and we're really pleased with that," she said.
Moss noted that Williams has launched "commencement academies" to boost the skills of many struggling eighth-grade graduates before they officially become ninth-graders.
She said city schools plan to monitor curriculum and teaching methods more closely, improve and expand staff development, assess student performance more frequently and emphasize high-level thinking and problem solving.
The Charter School for Applied Technologies in the Town of Tonawanda posted one of the most dramatic improvements among local schools in fourth-grade math. Four years ago, only a third of its fourth-graders scored at an acceptable level. Last year, the figure was 84 percent.
Superintendent Efraim Martinez cited the extended school year, starting two weeks earlier than most, and longer-than-average school day, running from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., as factors in the improvement. But he attributed most of the school's success to frequent tests.
All the teachers at a particular grade level collaborate on writing the tests, and all the children in the same grade level take the same tests throughout the year, regardless of which teacher they have, Martinez said. After children take a test, teachers pore over the results and plan upcoming lessons according to what areas the children seem to need reinforced.
"If you ask any of our teachers, 'Where are your kids in math?' " he said, "they don't know it in their heart. They know it with data. They make sure the data informs their instruction."
Educators across the region continue to grapple with an almost universal dip in test scores in eighth grade, with even the most successful schools stumped by the slump.
By contrast, though, Holland Middle School has recorded substantial gains among its eighth-graders in recent years. Four years ago, 60 percent of its eighth-graders were considered proficient in math; last year, the figure stood at 83 percent, landing the district among the top 10 middle schools for eighth-grade math results in the two counties.
What seems to help is the team approach that permeates the building, which houses grades five to eight, Principal Eric Lawton said. Teachers from all four grade levels, for instance, were involved in realigning the school's curriculum to keep pace with changes in the state's expectations.
"I've been in other districts where they say, 'the eighth-grade test.' Here, we call it 'the middle school test,' " he said. "Our seventh-grade teacher feels it's a reflection on her, how the kids do on the eighth-grade test. The mind-set here is, we're all working together toward that goal. And that's huge."
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