Scores on annual math and English language arts are higher in districts across the state and region, but officials warned Wednesday changes to the state tests make comparisons to prior years impossible.
The scores released Wednesday, however, can serve as new “baseline” scores as tests over the next two years are expected to mirror the most recent round of tests, which had been shortened from three days to two days.
“The 2018 test results cannot be compared with prior year results… no matter how hard the temptation, you cannot do it,” state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday.
She reiterated multiple times the difficulty in comparing the results to previous years because of changes to the format of the test as well as the standards used in setting student performance.
While the test results don’t lend themselves to comparisons of how one district performed over the past two years, a comparison of relative changes in the test scores among districts does highlight districts where students appeared to lose ground compared to other districts.
On the math tests, for instance, just two districts in the Capital Region posted lower scores in 2018 than in 2017: Gloversville Enlarged School District and Corinth Central School District. In Gloversville, 21 percent of students scored proficient on the spring math tests; in 2017, 24 percent of students scored proficient on the math tests.
Gloversville did post higher scores on the ELA tests, and its relative change on that test roughly mirrored the climb other districts in the region experienced on the new tests.
Lauri Kent, Gloversville’s director of elementary curriculum and instruction, said the dip in scores was partly influenced by a major overhaul of the district’s school configurations. Consolidating various neighborhood elementary schools into individual school by grade groupings (all students go to the same 3-5 school, for example), teachers and students across the district were dealing with a major change.
“The results of the changes to the [school configurations] impacted everyone: our students, our teachers, our administration, our families,” Kent said, adding that after the initial transition year the new school configurations provide greater consistency to students. “But we are happy with making the move.”
She pointed out that the district’s students have shown steady improvement on a host of literacy measures tracked by the district over the last four years and said the district’s scores compare favorably to districts with similar levels of poverty.
Meanwhile, almost all districts in the region posted higher math scores on the two-day tests than they had in previous years. In Duanesburg Central School District, for example, 43 percent of students scored proficient on the state math exams; in 2017, 28 percent of Duanesburg students scored proficient on the math exams. Northville and Schoharie central school districts also experienced among the highest relative gains in the region on the math tests.
Shenendehowa, Niskayuna and Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake school districts posted the highest proficiency scores in the region on the math and ELA tests – with Saratoga Springs joining the top tier of districts with its math scores.
On the ELA tests, Niskayuna, Shen and Burnt Hills all posted proficiency scores of 66 percent – the highest in the region. On the math tests, Shen edged out all other districts with 69 percent of its students scoring proficient. Niskayuna registered a 67 percent proficiency score, while Burnt Hills and Saratoga Springs both posted 66 percent proficiency.
Statewide scores on ELA tests went from nearly 40 percent of students meeting proficiency to 45 percent and climbed nearly as much on math, moving from just over 40 percent to 44.5 percent.
Mixed results in Schenectady
In the Schenectady City School District, the test scores indicated mixed results. Both the district’s math and ELA scores were higher than earlier years, but the district’s relative improvement lagged other districts in the region. On ELA tests, 22 percent of the district's students scored proficient, up from 19 percent last year. On math tests, 13 percent of the district's students scored proficient, up from 12 percent last year.
“Math has been an area where we have struggled, it’s an area where we need to improve,” Aaron Bochniak, the district’s director of accountability, said at last week’s school board meeting.
In nearly half of the district’s elementary schools – Yates, Pleasant Valley, Hamilton, Howe and Woodlawn – math scores dropped, despite the regional and statewide trends that pushed scores higher in most places. At Yates Elementary, 4 percent of its students scored proficient on the math tests. Just eight out of 182 Yates students tested scored proficient in math; 145 students scored at the lowest level. The school also saw its ELA scores move in a negative direction.
But all of the district’s middle schools saw test scores improve in both math and ELA and other elementary schools also saw the schools improve.
Computer-based ‘technical difficulties’
The first day of ELA testing in the spring was marred by a cascade of technical problems that delayed tests, prevented students from submitting answers and stressed teachers and students in classroom across the region and state.
Elia acknowledged what state officials called “technical difficulties” on the ELA tests and said the problems were addressed and the math tests ran smoothly.
She also said the state testing vendor, Questar Assessment, was “held accountable” and had outlined plans to correct the problems and avoid them in the future.
Elia also reiterated her support for a shift toward computer-based test, highlighting the benefits of computer testing like the ability to introduce tests that adapt as students provide answers as well as an easier system for grading tests and returning results.
“[Computer-based testing] will help prepare students for the world we are currently living in,” Elia said.
In a statement, the state’s biggest teachers union, New York State United Teachers, bashed the scores as a based on “badly-flawed standardized tests” and provided to schools and teachers “too late to be helpful.”
Union leaders in the statement argued the tests remain too long and frustrating for students and don’t provide educators or parents with enough useful information. They also argued the state’s definition of “proficiency” unduly labeled students as not achieving academically.
It’s not clear how strong resistance among parents remains to the controversial state tests. While the percentage of students refusing the exam has fallen from 21 percent in 2016 to 18 percent in 2018, still nearly one-fifth of families refuse to participate on the tests.
Beginning this year, districts will be expected to get 95 percent participation on the tests under state and federal rules; if they fall short of that mark, they will have to outline plans to improve participation.
In the Capital Region, opt-out rates fell at most districts, but the districts in the region with the highest opt-out rates hardly moved. Mohonasen registered an opt-out rate of around 50 percent; Canajoharie’s opt outs reached around 40 percent.