By Barbara O'Brien and Jay Rey
Fewer than half the students from New York State and the Buffalo region who took state assessment tests in the spring are at or above grade level in reading and math.
And the achievement gap between white students and their black and Hispanic classmates continues to persist, narrowing ever so slightly last year.
Those are just a couple of the findings from the state Education Department, which on Wednesday released school-by-school results of the annual state assessment tests for grades 3 through 8.
The big question that remains unanswered, though, is whether students are performing better or worse.
While it would appear there were gains across the board, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia warned numerous times during a telephone news conference about trying to compare the scores released Wednesday to those of previous years.
There cannot be a direct comparison, because the tests have been shortened from three days to two and a new baseline was created, the commissioner explained.
"You cannot compare them and it would be an inappropriate thing to do," Elia said. "We've been through this before."
When it comes to the results of the state assessment tests over the past decade or more, it's been a bit of a roller-coaster ride.
Scores have gone up and down over the years, as the state has made adjustments in the "cut scores" – the level at which students are deemed proficient – while it continues to figure out how best to measure learning.
Educators are accustomed to not having the ability to compare scores from year to year, said Kelly White, assistant superintendent for instruction in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District.
"It has been a challenge for a number of years," she said.
But, she said, districts will examine this year's scores and see how questions align to standards and see how students have performed relative to that particular standard.
"We can certainly use that information as one piece of a multi-measured process to take a look at how we're supporting our students," White said.
The state teachers union took the opportunity again on Wednesday to criticize the way the state set the benchmarks for determining student proficiency on ELA and math tests last year.
“It is better that scores are up, but it doesn’t change the fact that the state’s standardized testing program — and the way it determines student proficiency — is badly broken,” Andy Pallotta, president of the New York State United Teachers, said in a prepared statement.
Not everyone agrees.
"The changes in the assessments, which make this year’s results incomparable to last year’s, are the result of good faith efforts by the state Education Department to improve confidence in the state tests," said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of the Education Trust–New York, an educational think tank.
He called the tests a "vital measure" to help parents and educators understand which schools are succeeding and can serve as models, and which are underserving students and should focus on improvement.
Shortening the tests from three days per subject to two days was in response to pleas from parents and educators, Elia said, and the scores will now be comparable moving forward – or at least until 2021. That's when the state is to roll out its new set of learning standards and assessments based on those standards.
"This does not mean this year's scores are not meaningful," Elia said. "These scores provide us with a snapshot to see if we are achieving equity."
Here's what the data showed for:
- New York State. Statewide, 45.2 percent of all students taking the tests in grades 3 through 8 were proficient in English language arts, and 44.5 percent were proficient in math. Last year, 39.8 percent statewide were proficient in ELA and 40.2 percent were proficient in math.
- Erie and Niagara counties. The ELA proficiency rate was 39.4 percent in Erie County and 41 percent in Niagara County, while the math rate was 37.6 percent in Erie County and 42.5 percent in Niagara County.
- Buffalo. In the city school district, 23.9 percent of students were proficient in ELA, and 21.6 percent were proficient in math. Buffalo continued to lag behind the statewide proficiency level, but was third among the Big Five school districts, behind New York City and Yonkers. Administrators view the results as an improvement, thanks in part, to a districtwide emphasis on elementary education, extended learning time and greater support for the district’s neediest students.
- The suburbs. Ledgeview Elementary in Clarence had the highest proficiency rate in math among schools in Erie and Niagara counties, followed by City Honors School. Six of the Top 10 performing schools in math were in Clarence and Williamsville. In ELA, Lewiston-Porter Primary School had the highest proficiency rate – 95 percent – followed by City Honors; Ledgeview; and Dodge and Maple East elementary schools in Williamsville.
Marie Balen, assistant superintendent for instruction in Williamsville Central Schools, said districts knew the results would be later than usual, but they were still wondering when the numbers would arrive.
“Would we have liked to have it sooner? Absolutely,” she said.
But the assessments are not the only measures schools use.
“It’s one among other data points,” Balen said.
Even if the two years cannot be compared, some of the trends continue this year, including a significant gap between the achievement of black and Hispanic students and their white peers, although the gap narrowed by about 1 percentage point.
This year, the proficiency rate for black students in ELA was 34.5 percent, compared with 35.1 percent of Hispanic students and 51.8 percent of white students.
In math, the proficiency rates were 29.3 percent for black students, 31.8 percent of Hispanic students and 54.2 percent of white students.
Among the other findings:
- Students who received services as English language learners in the past had higher proficiency levels than the total test-taking population.
- The test refusal, or opt-out, rate dropped a percentage point to 18 percent this year.
- Charter school students scored above the state as a whole.
Charter school students represent just under 7 percent of all public school students, Elia said. The statewide charter school proficiency rate was 54 percent in ELA and 55.8 percent in math. Proficiency in Buffalo charter schools was 33.7 percent in ELA and 32 percent in math.
See how your school did on 2018 ELA and math tests:
Source: New York State Department of Education. Schools that reported results in 2017 but not in 2018 are not included.