Press-Republican

August 8, 2013

Low state test scores reflect expectations

By ASHLEIGH LIVINGSTON
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — Nearly 70 percent of the state’s third- through eighth-graders are not proficient in English language arts and math, according to this year’s state test scores.

And the results just released from Clinton, Essex and Franklin county schools about match or exceed that figure.

Although the State Education Department forewarned that this would likely be the case due to newly implemented state standards, it was still difficult for educators like Kathryn Brown to see the results for herself.

“The wind still gets knocked out of you,” said the Chazy Central Rural School teacher.

Commissioner of Education Dr. John King Jr., who discussed the scores during a media conference call Wednesday, said that just 31.1 percent of students in grades three through eight across the state met or exceeded the English-language-arts proficiency standard and 31 percent, the math proficiency standard.

The numbers mark a dramatic drop in scores from last year, when 55.1 percent of students in those grades across the state met or exceeded the English-language-arts (ELA) proficiency standard and 64.8, the math proficiency standard.

LOCAL NUMBERS

In Clinton County schools, 26.25 percent scored high enough to match or better the standard in English language arts, with 22.55 percent passing the math-proficiency tests.

The ELA percentage for students in Essex County schools came in at 30.18 percent, with 22.1 percent meeting or exceeding the math standard.

And in Franklin County, 19.2 percent of pupils who took the tests met or bettered the ELA standard, with 16.06 percent passing in math.

Numbers were not available on Wednesday for individual school districts.

NEW BASELINE

“The first thing we need to realize is that it is not going to be productive to compare these scores to last year’s,” Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School Superintendent Scott Osborne said in an interview with the Press-Republican.

“These tests are based upon new curriculum that other states are taking a year to become familiar with. In New York, we were the only state, I believe, to jump into the new assessments immediately.”

The results, King said, establish a new baseline.

That new curriculum, first implemented and tested during the 2012-13 academic year, is that of the Common Core Standards.

“Its important to emphasize that the changes in scores do not mean that schools have taught less or students have learned less,” King said.

The standards, he explained, are designed to better prepare students for success in college and career and are a much more rigorous curriculum than was taught before.

“There is more of a focus on new skill sets needed in the workplace: writing more authentically, analyzing something that you read in a deeper fashion,” Osborne said.

“There is also added emphasis on the skills that we believe are needed in the 21st century, such as collaboration and critical thinking.”

CHALLENGES TESTS

Still, King noted, the test scores “reflect what we have long known about the college and career readiness of our students.”

While the state’s graduation rate is 74 percent, he noted, just 35.3 percent of those students are leaving high school college- and career-ready.

Brown, however, feels the Common Core is not developmentally appropriate, especially for the younger grade levels.

“We’re talking about tests that are for third-through-eighth graders ... No standardized test given to a third-through-eighth-grader determines whether or not they are college and career ready.

“There is absolutely no way that 31 percent of the children are at grade level and everybody else isn’t,” she said.

‘SOBERING SCORES’

But the country and the state, according to King, have been reluctant in past years to acknowledge just how unprepared students really are for success after high school.

“We have worked over the last four years ... to provide a more accurate view,” he said, adding that it is far better to give families a picture of their students’ performance in fourth grade rather than allowing them to enter college without the proper tools.

At Elizabethtown-Lewis Central, according to Osborne, the low scores reflect the challenge the school faced in implementing curriculum changes ahead of the testing sequence.

“Teachers have had to work particularly hard across the district to match the curriculum that was just being rolled out,” he said.

“The scores are certainly going to be sobering, and it was tough when the Common Core was rolled out, and right after it, we’ve got the testing being changed,” added Donna André, superintendent of St. Regis Falls and Brushton-Moira central schools.

‘INSTRUCTION PROBLEM’

But allowing schools to give tests based on the old standards would have led to less Common Core instruction in the classrooms, according to King.

“It would have made no sense to have an assessment based on a different set of standards than we’re trying to teach in our schools,” he said.

This year’s low scores, the commissioner continued, are not a remediation problem, but an instruction problem.

“Teachers need to spend time adapting their approach to instruction,” he said.

Brown noted, however, that adapting instruction for 2013-14 will be difficult, considering that the test results have been released just three weeks before the start of the school year.

Osborne and André are encouraged, though, by the state’s plans to release more detailed information about the results in the near future.

“That will help us in our work to refine the curriculum,” Osborne said.

“We’re going to slow down and look at the results and plan for our students,” André added.

‘GAME CHANGED’

At Malone Central School, Superintendent Jerry Griffin hopes to keep the focus on implementing the Common Core rather than on the poor test results.

“We think our students will be better prepared to take these assessments at the end of next school year,” he said.

This year’s dramatic decline in scores, King emphasized, should not be used to critique schools and their faculty and staff.

“That would be wrong,” he said. “We have taken careful steps to ensure teacher accountability will not be affected by lower proficiency rates.”

In addition, the 2012-13 test results will not be a factor in determining Focus Districts and Priority Schools.

“I don’t think parents, at this point, should be worried about these scores,” Osborne said. “The state has changed the game.

“It’s our job as a school to respond to that, not react. We plan to put more focus on aligning our curriculum to the Common Core.”

Brown said she isn’t worried about the CCRS community lacking confidence in her school as a result of the scores, but she knows it will be difficult for families to comprehend how a student who was deemed proficient last year is no longer considered so.

“My school has a reputation of academic excellence, and we’ve worked very hard to do that,” she said, “but I do think there’s going to be a significant amount of confusion.”

‘BE INFORMED’

King said the Education Department will be sending letters to parents explaining the new baseline, as well as the importance of knowing that teachers, administration and school boards have been working hard to improve their children’s academic success.

In addition to utilizing the Academic Intervention Services and Response to Intervention programs that are available for struggling students, he noted, parents must also continue to talk with their children’s teachers and take an active role in their education.

“There’s no simple answer here,” King said. “There’s just hard work ahead to make sure that all of our students get the skills that they need.”

He recommended that parents and educators visit engageny.org for more information on the Common Core and state assessments.

Brown stressed that parents, grandparents and community members need to speak directly with their schools’ administration and teachers to ask for help making sense of students’ test results.

“Be informed about what that test is and what’s being asked of the student,” she said.

— Staff Writer Kim Smith Dedam contributed to this report.