Fewer than 6 percent of Martin Luther King Elementary students scored proficient on state math tests last year; fewer than 7 percent of Lincoln Elementary students reached that mark.
And across the Schenectady City School District, 12 percent of students were proficient on the state math tests — down 2 percentage points from the year before — the wrong direction for a district hoping to see test scores grow by 8 percentage points.
“I haven’t slept since the scores came out,” MLK Principal Nicki DiLeva said last week. State education officials released scores in late August. “We have a sense of urgency; we always have… None of us are happy with these scores.”
But with the first “significant” investment in new services and programs in years hitting the district this school year, school leaders and district officials have intimated the window for excuses is closing.
“I believe every child can and will [improve]; it’s on the adults to help them do it,” said Lincoln Elementary Principal Laura Buzas.
The single-digit math proficiency scores at Lincoln and MLK — as well as at Van Corlaer and Yates elementary schools — aren’t the only troubling signs in the test results. When accounting for changes to school rosters from a shift in school boundaries, on both the math and English tests more than half of the district’s elementary schools saw overall proficiency scores decline. And a wide gap remains between the district’s best and worst performing school.
At Wednesday’s school board meeting, Superintendent Larry Spring and district officials plan to present an analysis of the tests results to the school board and discuss the path forward.
“For me personally, it’s a significant concern,” School Board President John Foley said of the test scores.
An ‘accelerated’ mission
Schools this month welcomed back students with open arms and some new services: Lincoln added a pair of math specialists who are working to improve teacher instruction and over the year will tailor plans for students’ particular weaknesses. English language arts teachers float between classrooms to lower student-teacher ratios during literacy blocks. A new program of supports aims to mirror how special education students are served for general education students.
School leaders also point to efforts to improve school community and culture, working to build students’ self-esteem and ability to calm and focus themselves when stressed.
On Thursday night, MLK parents and students spilled into the school for back-to-school night. Organizations like the Boys and Girls Club and Girls Inc. were on hand to sign kids up for activities and services. Staff explained efforts to improve attendance – last year over 20 percent of MLKL students missed 18 days or more of school – and urged parents to have their kids read at home. DiLeva promised she would host another meeting next month to explain last year’s test results.
The principals said they recognize the need not just for improvement but to make enough gains to close persistent performance gaps.
“Based on those scores, we know that improvement isn’t enough,” Buzas said. “It has to be accelerated improvment.”
At Lincoln, classes in all grades start each day with a morning meeting and end each day with a closing circle, which are meant to build class community and help students feel proud of themselves and cared for.
First-grade teacher Aleecia Persaud greeted her students one-by-one with a smile and a handshake. “Good morning, Barack. How are you?” she asked a student. She ensured that each student made eye contact as she greeted them. They also did an activity, pairing off to learn something new about a fellow classmate and finished by sharing plans for the weekend.
“Over the weekend, I’m going to see the movie ‘Captain Underpants,'” Barack Mama Amadou said.
Up two floors, Lauren Devery’s fifth-grade class also went through the steps of a morning meeting: greeting, activity and sharing. And in both classes, the teachers had written a message that morning to their class.
In Devery’s class, she reminded students about the math stories they learned to write the day before and asked them to write a new one. One of the students wrote a problem about how many slimes would they have if they needed to make nine slimes and then two more slimes. The answer the student gave was wrong – 10 slimes.
“It’s okay,” Devery said. “So instead of 10 slimes, how many slimes did we make?”
“Eleven slimes,” the students said together.
Some schools advance while others fall further behind
Howe Elementary, Schenectady’s highest-performing elementary school on this year’s English language arts state test, scored within five percentage points of the state average of 40 percent proficient. The district’s lowest-performing elementary school, Lincoln, however, fell nearly 30 percentage points short of the state average.
While all of the district’s 11 elementary and three middle schools lag behind state proficiency averages on annual spring tests, a wide range of scores persists within the district. Howe, for example, scored nearly 24 percentage points higher than Lincoln Elementary on the ELA test. Woodlawn, the highest-scoring elementary school on math, scored nearly 30 percentage points higher than MLK.
And the gaps may be widening — even in the district’s first year with new school boundaries aimed at evening out the kinds of demographic disparities among schools thought to be driving some of the performance differences.
With the 2017 tests marking the baseline for the district’s new school configuration — the redistricting also moved all elementary schools to a pre-kindergarten through fifth grade model and reestablished three middle schools — the gap between the district’s highest and lowest scoring schools widened narrowly.
An initial district analysis of this year’s test results also shows that even when accounting for redistricting-driven changes in student populations, some schools are improving while others are falling further behind.
At Pleasant Valley Elementary, for example, nearly 22 percent of the test-age students scored proficient on 2016 ELA tests. By the end of the year, 13 percent of the school’s students scored proficient. Meanwhile, Yates Elementary improved its proficiency scores from 12 percent to 20 percent by the end of the year, according to the district analysis.
“The overall change in scores don’t nearly begin to tell the story because we see an awful lot of variance within the scores,” Spring said at a school board meetings days after the results were released. “Some buildings made a lot of growth and some buildings regressed.”
Aside from the kind of progress seen at Yates, none of the schools are seeing the level of improvement the district’s ambitious goal calls for: lifting scores by 8 percentage points. In an average classroom reaching that target would mean keeping all proficient students at proficient and moving two students into proficiency, Spring said.
“Two students seems like a pretty reasonable task,” he said at the meeting. “Get two kids from below proficiency to above proficiency.”