One by one, fourth-grade teacher Nancy Zoricak wrote personal notes to each of her students at St. Benedict’s School.
The students found the encouraging messages on their desks, as they sat down as a class to take the state’s standardized math and English tests last year.
Zoricak reminded one student to take the English test one sentence at a time.
Keep your confidence, she urged another student.
The notes – and all of Zoricak’s other efforts – paid off at the Catholic grade school in Eggertsville.
When the test results came in, all of her students met or exceeded the proficiency standards in both English and math in 2014. They became the only fourth-grade class to have done so in both subjects in Western New York.
Opt-outs were relatively rare this spring among students at private schools in the region, although a Catholic diocesan official said they occurred more than last year.
At St. Benedict’s, as in other schools, there were plenty of jittery students.
So Zoricak wrote the notes to boost their confidence.
“I know my teacher is teaching me the right stuff,” said Julianna Ducato, 10, an honor roll student who was in Zoricak’s class last year. “I get nervous before the tests, but when I’m done, I feel proud.”
As students at St. Benedict’s and several other local private schools sat for this year’s standardized tests over the past couple of weeks, they had good reasons to feel good about last year’s scores and were optimistic they would score well this year too.
Across the region, private schools as a group – most of them Catholic – did somewhat better.
Children taking math and English language arts exams in fourth and eighth grades in the region’s private schools earned proficient or higher marks on 43 percent of their tests, compared with 40 percent in 2013, according to a Buffalo News analysis of test results.
But some did much better.
At St. Benedict’s, not only did all of the fourth-graders meet the proficiency standards, most scored at the highest level.
The school’s fourth- and eighth-grade students last year scored proficient or better in nearly nine of every 10 state tests.
Other top scoring schools for cumulative math and English results in 2014 included Christ the King School in Snyder and Queen of Heaven School in West Seneca, according to data from the state Department of Education.
At Christ the King, slightly more than 78 percent of students taking tests in the fourth and eighth grades were proficient or better in math and English.
Christ the King Principal Samuel Zalacca said the 210 students at the Snyder school face new challenges well.
“Last year’s test, being new, we went into it with no expectations – because it was brand new,” Zalacca said. “So we are very pleased with the results.”
At St. John the Baptist School in Kenmore, fourth-grade math scores increased so sharply that the school ranked among the highest in the state for improvement.
Students at St. Aloysius Regional School in Springville posted the best score in eighth-grade math, with eight of every 10 students testing as proficient or better.
“I like to say we’re kind of a nicely kept secret,” said Molly Halady, principal at St. Benedict’s.
“People are talking,” Halady said of the school with 199 students. “That is the key – the little things that we’re doing, for educating the whole child.”
About nine of every 10 private school students taking the standardized tests last year did so at a Catholic school.
The Catholic Diocese of Buffalo sees a value in the state standardized testing because the tests allow its schools to measure themselves against others, said Sister Carol Cimino, the superintendent of Catholic schools.
“We’re not teaching a Common Core curriculum, as the public schools are,” Cimino said. “But we are teaching to the Common Core standards.”
Cimino said the Catholic schools use the tests as “a benchmark to measure.”
In the most recent round of state tests this spring, local Catholic schools encountered some parents choosing to have their children opt out of the tests. For the English language arts exam, the opt-out rate was around 14 percent, higher than last year, Cimino said. But, it was lower than the estimated statewide 17 percent rate for public schools.
And the Catholic opt-out rate was far lower than the 28 percent opt-out rate for Williamsville public schools and the 45 percent mark for Hamburg public schools.
Cimino said she sent a letter to principals and parents, through the schools, urging parents to let their children take the exams.
‘Not that important’
Gina Ducato, Julianna’s mother, said she did not consider letting her daughter opt out.
“To me, the standardized tests are not that important,” Ducato said. “I just told her to try her best. It’s not going to make or break her high school acceptance or her career.”
Ducato said she understands why the tests are important to the school.
She made sure Julianna got plenty of sleep and a good breakfast before the tests. But she didn’t alter her daughter’s routine. She still went to dance practice.
“I wanted to tell parents, don’t get caught up in this opting out,” said Cimino, at the diocese, of the letter she wrote. “First of all, this is a good experience for the child.”
Even at schools where the scores are lower than others, like at Our Lady of Black Rock School in Buffalo, the educators see value in the tests.
Our Lady of Black Rock principal Martha J. Eadie said her school differs from others in some ways.
“We have a very special, unique population,” Eadie said. For instance, some are learning English as a second language.
While the school’s overall test scores aren’t high, the school sees progress from individual students and can track where the improvements are made.
“We think it’s good,” Eadie said.
Last year’s fourth-graders at St. Benedict’s – who all scored well on the English and math tests – had some advantages as they prepared to take the tests.
Their class was small, with only seven taking the test.
“I love the small classes,” said Ducato, whose daughter was in the class.
So no one falls through the cracks and there’s time to give individual attention.
And, they had their teachers for a second consecutive year. She was also their third-grade teacher.
“It makes a huge difference,” said Zoricak, who has taught for 36 years, the past 22 years at St. Benedict’s.
She was aware of her students’ strengths and weaknesses and knew how to motivate them.
Once a week, through the entire school year, she holds a mandatory after-school study session for students who need some extra help in English, and another weekly session for math. Each session lasts a half hour.
A month or two before the state tests, she opens the sessions to all of her students, and they work on old test questions.
But Catholic schools don’t play up the test results or tie them to teacher evaluations.
“I think the tests are wonderful. The tests help us as teachers,” Zoricak said, citing the use of test result data to determine what areas the students need more help in.
For example, in past years, she spent more time on fractions because the results showed a weakness in that area.
She has almost double the number of fourth-graders this year, and the number will increase again next year.
Last year, St. Benedict’s fourth-graders received personal notes from her before the tests.
This year’s class received a poem, along with a treat, from Zoricak on each test day.
On a math test day, her students received this poetic reminder:
“Numbers, numbers, everywhere! Check your work to show you care! Work slowly, carefully, and be neat, but first, crunch on a Rice Krispie Treat!”
A Snickers candy bar awaited each student on another test day. “You’ve prepared all year, so you’ll Snicker at how easy this test is,” the poem read.
The test results made Zoricak proud.
“I feel I played a part in building them up,” she said.