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Area districts make gains in state ELA and math test

Area districts make gains in state ELA and math test

Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring cautions that "erratic" results from school to school
Area districts make gains in state ELA and math test
Superintendent Larry Spring speaks at a press conference at Mont Pleasant Middle School on May 15, 2017.
Photographer: Gazette file photo

CAPITAL REGION -- Districts across the Capital Region mostly made gains on annual state math and English tests last school year, though some districts lost ground in at least one subject, according to results released Thursday.

In Schenectady city schools, student proficiency scores improved in both subjects, with 24 percent of students scoring proficient on the 2019 English Language Arts test, compared to 22 percent in 2018; in math, 16 percent of the district's students scored proficient in 2019, up from 13 percent in 2018. But Superintendent Larry Spring said a deeper look at the district’s results show “erratic” results from building to building, grade to grade and subject to subject.

“When we dig into it what we find is it’s modest progress on balance, but internally when we look at it more fine grained it’s erratic progress,” Spring said.

Some schools, like Keane Elementary, which received intensive focus from district officials due to its receivership status, improved much more relative to other schools, Spring said. In some places, schools regressed in particular subjects or at a particular grade level. Lincoln Elementary, for instance, improved its ELA proficiency but struggled in math.

And across the district still half or more of students registered the lowest proficiency mark on the annual state tests. 

“The reality is even in places we are making growth, we need to make more growth,” Spring said.

Spring said the district needs to do more to ensure students are receiving the intensive literacy practice necessary to get kids to grade level by third grade and continue to intervene when students are struggling. He said increasing the number of instructional coaches, who observe teachers in classrooms and help them improve their practice, would help improve the consistency of literacy education. He also said replicating the school improvement team that regularly visited Keane to analyze data and fine tune teaching at other schools would help, but that it would require an infusion of new resources.

The results released Thursday mark the first time in recent years the state test format was unchanged, providing comparable results from tests given in 2018 to those given in 2019.

State education officials reported small statewide gains on the annual math and English tests given to students in third through eighth grades.

The state's overall math proficiency scores improved by 2.2 percentage points on the 2019 tests, while the state English Language Arts proficiency improved by just 0.2 percentage points compared to the 2018 tests. 

The achievement gap for black, Hispanic and American Indian students also continued to narrow slightly, though the gap remains a significant aspect of the test results. Black students across the state scored nearly 16 percentage points lower on the ELA tests than their white classmates, and they scored 23 percentage points lower than their white peers in math. Those gaps narrowed by about 1.5 percentage points compared to 2018 results. 

“Troubling gaps persist and though we are on the path, our goal of equity has certainly not been achieved,” Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said on a conference call with reporters Thursday. Elia is set to step down from the state’s top education official position at the end of the month.

Test refusals also continued a gradual slide in recent years, with 16 percent of students across the test refusing to participate on the tests, down from 18 percent in 2018 and 19 percent in 2017.

The Capital Region’s highest-performing districts continued to improve their proficiency scores: Shenendehowa improved its math proficiency scores to 72 percent, the highest in the region; Niskayuna improved its ELA proficiency scores to 68 percent, besting Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake by 2 percentage points for the highest proficiency scores in that subject.

Duanesburg lifted both its ELA and math scores by at least 6 percentage points -- improving ELA from 47 percent to 54 percent proficient and improving math from 43 percent to 49 percent proficient. Duanesburg Superintendent Frank Macri attributed the improvement to the district’s “student-centered approach” and systematic analysis of student data and class curriculum.

“Staff work diligently to assess their practice to meet the needs of all learning levels,” Macri said in an email Thursday.

The biggest proficiency losses in the region appeared to come on the ELA tests. Broadalbin-Perth, for example, backslid from a 47 percent proficiency score on the 2018 ELA tests to 40 percent proficiency in 2019. The district’s math scores improved by 1 percentage point -- 47 percent to 48 percent. In Guilderland schools, the ELA proficiency rate dropped from 61 percent in 2018 to 56 percent in 2019.

The release of the results was also punctuated by what may be the final clash between Elia and New York State United Teachers, the state's largest teachers union. The union has long argued the state tests are a poor measure of student performance and scored against unfair measures of "proficiency." But Elia has pointed to a litany of changes to the tests under her tenure, including shortening the tests from three days each to two days each, and the involvement of teachers in writing test questions as evidence of the state's engagement with teachers across the state.

When asked Thursday to respond to criticism from NYSUT President Andy Pallotta, Elia held little back.

"I don't know what planet he is on, he certainly is not in New York state," Elia said. "We can always do more, but I think it is somewhat off the edge to say I've not been open to hearing feedback from teachers and practitioners."

The union didn't let up on its years long assault on state tests after the results were released Thursday, noting it was nice to see scores improve slighlty but that it didn't want to "paper over the fact that the state's standardized testing system ... remains badly broken."

"The state Education Department has made little effort or progress when it comes to fixing years long problems with these tests," the union said in a press release. "Officials must correct the testing system before our children sit for exams next spring."

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