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Falls school leaders give high priority to test scores, graduation rate

NIAGARA FALLS – The leaders of the city’s public schools Thursday adopted goals for raising test scores and the high school graduation rate, while acknowledging the challenges facing the district and improvements it needs to make.

The School Board adopted Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco’s proposed three-year strategic plan by a 7-0 vote.

In the area of student achievement, the plan calls for increasing the on-time, high school graduation rate to 82 percent by 2016. This year, the on-time graduation rate was 74 percent.

The strategy also sets performance goals for students taking standardized English and math tests at a proficiency level that could be up to three, four or even six times the proficiency rate seen this year.

“The state thrust these tests on children and schools without revised curriculum and professional development in place,” Bianco said in explaining the “shocking though not surprising” test scores in elementary- and preparatory-level students in the district.

The state has told school districts “that the low scores throughout the state do not mean that teachers aren’t teaching and students aren’t learning,” Bianco said, “but you tell that to an already skeptical public.”

Bianco’s comments came during her annual State of the Schools address, a 16-minute speech in which she declared that the condition of the district is “good and improving.”

One of the areas where the district needs the most improvement, Bianco said, is in test scores and graduation rate for students with disabilities.

In addition to improving student achievement, the strategic plan’s five goals also include achieving “the highest level of employee cooperation, trust and empowerment”; effectively controlling costs while maintaining quality education; forming “the highest level of partnerships with our community”; and finding ways to “provide, integrate and promote technology throughout all facets” of the school district.

Board member Ronald J. Barstys said he supports the goals of the strategic plan, saying Bianco outlined her proposal in “an articulate and precise and focused and purposeful way.”

“You have to have your goals high,” Barstys said. “If you set them any lower, you sell the kids short.”

Regarding test scores, the board heard from the head of the city’s teachers union, who called on the board to support a resolution proposed by New York State United Teachers to “fight against standardized testing.”

“NYSUT is willing to be the tip of the spear in the fight against standardized testing,” but the organization needs the support of others, including school boards, said Marcus T. Latham, president of Niagara Falls Teachers.

“Stop it now, fix it and, if it can’t be fixed, scrap it,” Latham suggested, “and replace it with something that’s much more effective.”

Four board members at Thursday’s meeting expressed explicit support for the NYSUT proposal: Barstys, Vice President Nicholas S. Vilardo, Anthony F. Paretto and Carmelette D. Rotella.