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Area’s private and Catholic schools’ test scores are tops in state

One by one, the Immaculate Conception students accepted their academic awards Friday afternoon.

So many earned high grades that Principal Karen Adamski couldn’t afford to slow down calling their names during an honors assembly at the Catholic elementary school in East Aurora. In the seventh-grade class alone, 18 of 24 students earned first honors for grades of 95 or higher.

So it comes as no surprise that students at Immaculate Conception School scored well last year on the state’s math and English language arts tests. And that helps explain why Western New York’s private and Catholic school students performed better than their counterparts across the state on English proficiency tests, a Buffalo News analysis found.

In this one important measure, the students in the third through eighth grades at the nonpublic schools in Western New York, as a group, tested better in English than the rest of the private school students in the state, and they ranked among the best in math as well.

The Western New York students were significantly better in English. Forty-seven percent met or exceeded proficiency standards, compared to 35 percent for the rest of New York.

Students in private schools, as a group, also scored higher in English than those in public schools here, according to The News analysis of state Education Department data. In Erie and Niagara counties, 48 percent of the private school students were proficient in English, compared to 32 percent of the public school students in the two counties. The private and public school students did about the same in math, with almost one of every three proficient.

Students at both private and public schools will be put back to the test again Tuesday, the first of three days of English language arts testing this week. Nine out of every 10 private school students who took the tests last year attended a Catholic school.

As more parents of public and private school students protest against the assessment tests based on Common Core standards, Catholic school leaders are careful not to place too much emphasis on the standardized tests.

“I’m very proud of what our schools do,” said Sister Carol Cimino, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Buffalo. “They do so much with so little.”

Cimino and other Catholic school leaders say they don’t play up the results or tie them to teacher evaluations, but instead use them to pin down where students need to show improvement.

“It’s merely a test,” Cimino said. “This is just one snapshot. It’s not high stakes.”

Like the results for public schools, the scores for both math and English at the region’s private schools dropped sharply last year, when assessment tests based on the Common Core standards were administered for the first time.

The low test scores at some private schools proved as disappointing as those at struggling public schools.

At the 10 private schools with the worst scores in English, not even one out of every four students met proficiency standards.

Experts caution against making too much of the regional differences when looking at the results.

“My gut tells me, it’s not geography,” said John F. Siskar, interim director at the Center for Excellence in Urban and Rural Education at SUNY Buffalo State. “You can have a blip any year for any number of reasons.

“We also don’t know whether or not the Common Core, as currently structured, is effective,” Siskar said.

But state tests can be useful, he said.

“It’s important to have standards and benchmarks,” Siskar said. “We need standardized tests. But we need them to be one element of an overall evaluation that helps us understand what a child does and doesn’t know.”

Celebrating testing

The News analyzed results from all 762 private schools across the state that administered the tests to some 66,000 students.

Some 6,204 students took the English tests at schools in Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Genesee and Allegany counties, with 47 percent passing.

Thirty-one percent of students in the Western New York counties met or exceeded the proficiency standards in math, the third-highest mark in the state, according to the News analysis.

Some of the region’s higher performing schools ranked among the state’s best.

At Immaculate Conception School, 22 of the 26 third graders met or exceeded proficiency standards in English. That ranked as the best performance in New York among the 103 third-grade classes with 20 or more students.

Among the state’s 307 sixth-grade classes with at least 20 students, five of the eight schools with the highest passing percentages were local schools: St. Gregory the Great, St. Mary in Swormville, Immaculate Conception, Nardin Academy in Buffalo, and SS. Peter & Paul in Williamsville.

Immaculate Conception’s fourth-grade class ranked fourth statewide in English and the sixth-grade class ranked fourth in math among the 300-plus schools with 20 or more students in those grades.

More than 60 percent of all of the students at St. Gregory the Great School in Amherst met or exceeded proficiency standards in math, the highest school-wide mark in Western New York.

“We prepare the kids all year long,” Principal Patricia M. Freund said. “We celebrate the testing as opposed to making it something anxiety producing.”

St. Benedict, Immaculate Conception and Christ the King schools were the only other elementary schools with at least half of their students meeting or exceeding proficiency standards.

Beefed-up training

Students in Mary Jane Liszewski’s third-grade class at Immaculate Conception on Friday split into groups of four – their literature circles – and took turns reading a story about a boy in Africa who befriends a lion club named Simba.

Then they answered written questions. Liszewski walked around the classroom, offering positive reinforcement when she heard right answers and encouragement when the children seemed stumped.

“I like that expression,” she told one group.

“Make sure you check the whole story,” she told another.

The pace of their reading for the timed state test this week will be faster – and they will have no literature circle to turn to.

Will her class do as well as last year’s class?

“Every class is unique, and everybody learns at their own pace,” she said.

Cimino, the superintendent of Catholic schools, said the diocese has beefed up teacher training and crafted curriculum to better prepare students. Plans call for science, technology, religion, engineering, art and math to become the focal point of the Catholic school curriculum. Ten schools will be part of a pilot effort this year. As for the remaining schools, “we’ll load them up with ELA and math,” Cimino said.

Demographic challenges

The test results show the private schools also confront the same demographic challenges that public schools face.

The fact that higher performing schools are in Amherst and East Aurora – where they draw students from more affluent neighborhoods – does not surprise Siskar.

Poverty and parents are important factors.

“Within schools, good teachers are the most important factor in a child’s success,” Siskar said. “But the No. 1 predictor of educational success is economics.”

A parent’s level of educational attainment also makes a difference.

Cimino, the superintendent of Catholic schools, talks about single parents who struggle to make time in their work day to meet with teachers, or who are too worn out after work to make sure the homework is done right.

“When putting food on the table is the priority, academics sometimes takes a back seat,” Cimino said.

Also, schools like Buffalo’s Our Lady of Black Rock, where only 13 percent of the students met proficiency standards in English, enroll students whose native language is not English.

Awarded on virtues

Like other Catholic schools, Immaculate Conception infuses its curriculum and activities with Catholic faith and values.

So not all of the students who heard their names called by the principal Friday were receiving an award for being on the honor roll.

Many were tested on their virtues – and they passed in the eyes of their teachers.

So a student from each class was honored for showing cooperation.

Others received awards for showing good judgment.

Still others earned honors for displaying courage – for not being afraid to ask questions in front of classmates and for sticking up for others.

Adamski recognized others for their curiosity or for their effort.

Immaculate Conception places as much emphasis on life skills and virtues as on test scores, she said.

“I want to see a child who wants to learn, is learning, who speaks well, who writes well, who reads and is interested in art and music,” Adamski said. “A test isn’t going to show you all of that.”

To look up the 2013 results of state English and math tests for each grade at private and Catholic schools in Western New York, go to