Schenectady school board members got distressing news in their first look at student progress this year.
It turns out poor performance begins as early as first grade. According to first-quarter grades, only 44 percent of the district’s first graders are reading at grade-level.
And very few of them ever catch up. Only 57 percent of the district’s sixth graders are reading on grade-level right now — and that’s after each grade level inched up steadily, from 46 percent in second grade to 53 percent in third grade.
Not one grade exceeded 57 percent.
The figures only got worse as school board members looked at the middle school grades.
There, only 52 percent of the students were passing all of their classes by the end of first quarter. Fifteen percent — 221 students — were failing three or more classes.
But even those percentages were better than the data at the high school. Only 37.5 percent of the high schoolers were passing all their classes, and hundreds of freshmen were getting at least one grade below a 55.
Teachers issued 998 “no grade” letters for those classes — some freshmen received more than one NG — and this week school officials began delivering letters in person to each parent of a child getting an NG.
New Principal Diane Wilkinson encouraged teachers to give out NGs to encourage students to keep trying.
“Trying to be creative to work with students to not give up hope,” she said. “It may be a rough start, but we’re here to let you know it’s not the end.”
Students who fail ninth grade are more likely to drop out than any other student, so the district has focused efforts on that group. Attendance deans personally knock on their doors, call their parents and patrol the city to get freshmen to come to school, while teachers run a special ninth grade academy and have weekly conferences focusing on students who are doing poorly.
This was the first time the school district collected first-quarter data for the school board. It is an initiative of the new Superintendent Laurence Spring.
School officials will use the data to look for trends and weaknesses. But school board members said it’s hard to know where to start with such serious problems at every level.
“Many of these numbers are disturbing,” said board member Cheryl Nechamen. “Our achievement is not where it should be. But the first step is knowing what the problem is.”
One bright spot in the data was the racial achievement gap. On reading proficiency, there was not a significant gap between races. Blacks and Hispanics had a 46 percent reading proficiency rate, on average, while whites had a 53 percent rate.
The real separation came in terms of wealth.
Students who came from middle-class or wealthy families scored far higher on reading proficiency than students from poor families. While 71 percent of the wealthier students could read at grade level this fall, only 45 percent of the poor students could read well.
When school officials compared the fall results to the results from last June, they found that students also lost far more than expected over the summer. In last year’s kindergarten classes, 67 percent could read at grade level by June. But when those students showed up for school this fall, they had lost so much reading skill that only 44 percent of them can still read at grade level, three months into the school year.
That trend continued through every grade level.
Also worrying were the results about writing skills in elementary school. At every grade level, students scored worse on writing than any other skill, including reading. In most grades, only a quarter to a third of the students could write at grade level.
School officials said they would look at how teachers instruct to figure out why students are not learning to write well.
The report also showed that attendance continues to be a problem at the high school, despite the efforts of the attendance deans. Considering all students who came to school at least 80 percent of the time, the attendance rate was 83.6 percent, with 406 students skipping school regularly.
The high school report also showed that students continue to do worst in the core subjects that they must pass if they are going to graduate.
While large percentages of students were passing music, theater, technology and other such classes, only about two-thirds of them were passing English, science and math. In each class, 68 percent of the students had a passing grade for first quarter.
Social Studies was slightly better, with 72 percent of the students passing so far. Of the core classes, students were doing the best in world languages, where 81 percent took home a passing grade last week.
Grades also may not be a good measure of student success. Spring noted that in some grades, 87 percent of the students were passing English — yet far fewer passed the state test on the same subject.
“It was nowhere near 87 percent of the kids,” Spring said.
He added that the test is “a snapshot in time” and he would expect some students to pass the class yet do poorly on one exam.
“But if it’s more than 10 or 15 percent away,” he said, trailing off before saying that he wants to look at course standards and see whether teachers are setting a “rigorous enough” standard for internal grades.
School board members said they were pleased to see the data, although it was disappointing. They asked to also see the corrective plans that officials will be creating based on the problems revealed by the data.