Many Amsterdam students testing below grade level; District introducing new academic interventions


AMSTERDAM — Fewer than 40% of third- through eighth-grade students who took state assessments last spring tested at proficiency in math and English Language Arts in the Greater Amsterdam School District. District officials say those scores have actually improved from previous years, while acknowledging learning gaps have only increased amid the pandemic.

Approximately 37% of third- through fifth-grade students and 36% of sixth- through seventh-grade students tested at proficiency in spring ELA assessments, according to results released by the state Education Department.

By comparison, 25% of students in grades three through five and 15% in grades six through eight tested at proficiency when spring assessments were previously given during the 2018-19 school year. There were no spring assessments during the 2019-20 school year due to the pandemic.

Approximately 30% of students in grades three through five tested at proficiency in math assessments last spring compared to 26% during the 2018-19 school year.

Only the performance on math assessments for students in grades six through eight declined with approximately 6% testing at proficiency this spring compared to 9% during the 2018-19 school year.

Although GASD Director of Testing and Academics Sandra Polikowski was pleased to see the improvements among students at most grade levels, she acknowledged the most recent spring assessments do not provide a reliable benchmark against which to measure students academically.

The state allowed parents to decide whether students would take the annual assessments last spring as many schools continued to operate under hybrid or optional fully remote attendance models due to the pandemic.

Just over half of all district students in grades three through five took both the math and ELA assessments last school year. At least 95% of students took the assessments in 2018-19. Just over 30% of students of the roughly 300 students in each grade six through eight took both assessments last spring. About 70% of middle schoolers took math assessments and 80% took ELA assessments in 2018-19.

“Numbers were definitely skewed from year to year,” district Superintendent Richard Ruberti said. “The last two years have been. Our baselines are totally off from what they normally would be, but with all of those factors, the increases at the elementary level we’re very satisfied with. It’s the math component where we have to look at where are we dropping.”

Internal assessments

To get a true picture of where students are academically, the district gives its own benchmark assessments in ELA and math for kids in kindergarten through eighth grade at the beginning of each school year. Those internal assessments this fall found most students are testing one to two grade levels below their current grade, according to Polikowski.

“We have students who are at grade level, but the majority are below one or two levels in math and ELA,” Polikowski said.

Ruberti and Polikowski attributed the gaps in part to curriculum changes at the state level that see students learning content at an earlier age than in the past, the impact of educational gaps following children as they advance to content building from previously covered skills and the overall disruptions to education during the pandemic.

“Early intervention for us is so important beyond belief of how much it means to catch the kids in the foundational skills early on in elementary school. So we’re trying to put more time and energy into the interventions that we have so we don’t see those scores dropping at the middle school like we did in math,” Ruberti said.

However, the administrators said lower math scores at the middle school level fail to reflect the removal of advanced students from the state testing cohort. Those students who take algebra in middle school do not take the spring assessments.

The district is employing a variety of intervention tools to try to get kids up to speed, but at the start of the school year the biggest focus was on reacclimating students to the structure of the school day and addressing any social and emotional needs of students.

“There was a mental component for kids to be out and it was difficult dealing with the pandemic, the things we’ve been dealing with. Wearing masks and all the PPE,” Ruberti said. “There have been so many other pieces besides the learning loss that we’re addressing.”

Now two months into the school year, the focus is shifting more heavily towards academics and any necessary interventions to address education gaps and re-engage kids in learning.

More funding and staff

The influx of $13.77 million in federal coronavirus relief to the district through the American Rescue Plan Act is helping cover the cost of new positions and resources to try to address the overall challenges.

The district has added social workers, a behavioral specialist, academic intervention teachers and teaching assistants this school year. However, national shortages of certified teachers have created challenges in totally filling those positions, sometimes leading to the redeployment of intervention support staff to fill in as substitutes.

The district is working on long-term hiring and retention plans to address these challenges, including a new partnership with Clarkson University aimed at creating a pipeline to the district for student teachers who could eventually return as employees.

The district is also expanding tutoring opportunities and summer school offerings for students at all grade levels.

Although results of the spring assessments show students of color and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds were less likely to test at proficiency than white students from non-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, Ruberti said the district looks at each student individually to determine whether they would benefit from any of the available academic interventions.

“It’s the whole child approach and once we establish that students do need extra assistance, we make sure they receive the assistance they need,” Ruberti said. “Everybody gets the same services, but based on the academic performance they get more of what they need.”

‘We have high hopes’

The creation of 10 new extracurricular clubs is geared toward boosting the relationship between students and their school. The district has also purchased a variety of new technology to enhance lessons and create new opportunities for project-based learning to make academics fun and engaging for students who may learn best through various teaching methods.

The district will track students’ progress throughout the school year with internal assessments to see how the interventions are working and whether the learning gaps are lessening.

“We have high hopes that our kids are going to be at grade level. It’s going to take time, we understand that. It’s going to take a lot of work, that’s OK, our teachers can do it,” Polikowski said. “We have the resources, we have the funding, we’re just hoping we can get more teachers in.”

While the ARPA funding is expected to be expended over the next three years, Ruberti said the district may fund some of the added positions and resources permanently if they are effective.

There has been no word yet on whether the district will allow parents to decide whether students take the state’s annual assessments in the spring. With most students back in school, Ruberti and Polikowski think it’s unlikely they will be optional again this school year.

Although they recognize that the mix of challenges students have faced over the past year and a half could easily translate to lower proficiency levels during the next round of assessments, both administrators are confident that GASD students will be able to overcome educational gaps over time.

“That’s our essential role, to have that efficacy that we believe in the kids, we believe in our staff to do that. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome,” Ruberti said. “It’s going to take time, but I think we’re certainly poised to have those pieces in place to at some point bridge that gap.”

Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News

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