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Editorial: Uptick in test scores shows Buffalo is on the right track

You may have had to squint to notice it, but the proof is there to see: Buffalo schools are moving in the right direction. Credit the administration of Superintendent Kriner Cash, the district’s teachers and the students whose efforts are improving their own life prospects.

The movement wasn’t great, but it was there. In English proficiency, Buffalo scores rose by 1.4 percentage points to 17.8 percent of students proficient, a number that remains shockingly and disturbingly low. In math, the proficiency level increased by 1.1 percentage points to 17.2 percent, which is also unacceptably and pitifully low.

But both are better than before. It’s progress – slow, and in dire need of goosing, but progress nonetheless. As New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia put it, perhaps too politely, “The important point is they are moving in the right direction. Certainly, Buffalo has a lot of work to do.” At around 17 percent proficiency, that’s an understatement.

Still, there is a legitimate glass-half-full view of the new report. The test scores were low and it would be unreasonable to think that even with capable management, they will suddenly bounce into the range of acceptability.

In addition, the district’s scores were better than two of the other Big Five urban districts – Rochester and Syracuse – though lower than those in Yonkers and New York City. What is needed now is progress and, while it would be better if it was at a faster clip than a little over a percentage point, it’s at least something that the district can build upon.

That is the crucial point. Buffalo needs this improvement to be a part of an ongoing trend and not an anomaly that triggers false hopes. Like the city’s economic revival, it’s not just about creating movement, but maintaining momentum. Continued progress requires less energy than overcoming inertia.

Here are two views showing why continued improvement is urgent. At the district’s Math Science Technology Preparatory School on High Street, only 6.9 percent of students achieved proficiency in math. Yes, that’s more than double the 3.1 percent figure from last year, but that would be embarrassing for any school, and especially for one carrying that name.

Conversely, at City Honors, one of Buffalo’s best schools, more than 16 percent of students failed to achieve proficiency in English and more than 20 percent fell short in math – and that was notably worse than last year, when 85.3 percent of students achieved proficiency. Shouldn’t one of the city’s best schools be able to post test scores better than that?

The Buffalo School District is fortunate to have Cash as its superintendent. His focus and organization are helping to push the district in the right direction. What is more, he not only understands the crucial need for faster improvement, but expects it to happen.

As the district enters the second year of his New Education Bargain, he said, “We expect to see larger percentage increases due to reduced class size in the early grades, along with a strategic focus on instruction across the curriculum – i.e. literacy, reading, writing, vocabulary, comprehension, numeracy, social studies, science, and technology skills.”

That’s good news and will be critical to his stated goal of graduating 70 percent of students by the end of the 2018-19 school year. The rate in 2016 was 63 percent.

There was additional good news in the recent report. Not only were Buffalo’s scores generally higher, but they were also up across the state. That suggests that Buffalo’s improvement was more than a fluke.

In addition, fewer parents are making the mistake of keeping their children out of standardized tests. The “opt out” rate declined for the first time in five years, falling to 19 percent – still destructively high – from the previous year’s 21 percent. But, again, it’s at least moving in a good direction, a likely result of the State Education Department’s willingness to act on the criticisms of parents.

Education is improving and parents are coming around. These are developments that need to be nourished.

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