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Elementary student proficiency in English and math took a sharp, but anticipated, plunge, according to standardized test results released Wednesday by the state Education Department.

Statewide, only 31 percent of students in third through eighth grades met or exceeded the proficiency standards in English and math this year, a drop of more than half compared with last year. The test results in Erie and Niagara counties mirrored the statewide decline.

A Buffalo News analysis of the test results in Erie and Niagara counties shows that 32 percent of students in grades three through eight were proficient in English, and nearly 30 percent were proficient in math. Local city school districts performed the worst on the exams. Buffalo struggled the most, with proficiency rates hovering around 10 percent.

The decline in test scores has been expected since the state implemented new assessments based on the Common Core Learning Standards, which have been adopted by 45 states nationwide. New York is only the second state, after Kentucky, to begin standardized testing this past school year based on the new learning standards that are designed to focus more on curriculum, instruction, and student thinking and reasoning skills.

The Common Core tests were administered for the first time this past year at the elementary level.

“The assessment results today establish a new baseline for student performance and student learning in New York State,” said Education Commissioner John King Jr.

He and other state education leaders repeatedly cautioned that the public should not compare these results with past years’ results and assume that teachers have been teaching less or that students have been learning less.

“There may be some who would try to attack schools and teachers,” King said. “That would be wrong.”

Many other education representatives echoed similar sentiments, from the U.S. secretary of education on down.

“It is important to recognize that student achievement did not go down; instead, standards went up,” said Timothy G. Kremer, executive director of the New York School Boards Association. “The state realigned exams to more closely mirror the knowledge and skills that students will need to succeed after high school. We can use this year’s results for comparisons to future years.”

In Buffalo, only 11.5 percent of students in grades three through eight met or exceeded the proficiency standards in English, a drop of more than 16 percentage points. In math, only 9.6 percent of Buffalo students met or exceeded the standards, a drop of more than 20 percentage points over last year’s scores. Those declines are sharper than the statewide average.

“I want to acknowledge that we take these test scores very seriously,” said Buffalo School Superintendent Pamela Brown, “and we are going to continue to do a number of things we’ve been doing over this past school year to make sure we are drastically improving our performance in all subject areas.”

Those things include more teacher training, providing extended learning time for students, offering after-school academic and enrichment programs, implementing data-driven planning and purchasing new Common Core curriculum materials, she said.

“We definitely are still working on making sure we have all the resources we need, and that our teachers need, in order to deliver the curriculum and instruction to enable our children to perform better,” Brown said.

Among the Big Five urban school districts across the state, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse had the worst results, a trend consistent with past years. Buffalo outperformed Rochester and Syracuse but fell behind New York City and Yonkers, also a consistent trend in recent years.

Statewide, large city school districts had an English proficiency average of 10 percent and a math proficiency average of 9 percent.

In Rochester, the district with the worst performance, only 5 percent of elementary students tested were considered proficient in English and math.

Buffalo charter schools, meanwhile, outpaced Buffalo Public Schools when it came to student test performance, according to a News analysis.

For children in grades three through eight, 14 percent of charter school students were proficient in English, compared with less than 12 percent for Buffalo Public Schools. The gap is wider in math, with 19 percent of charter school students proficient in math, compared with 10 percent for the Buffalo district.

Statewide, charter schools performed worse on the English standardized tests, 23 percent proficiency, against the statewide public school average of 31 percent, and performed virtually the same as the public schools on the math assessments.

Many education leaders expressed concern and criticism of the state’s decision to begin testing on the new Common Core standards when most other states have elected to wait.

“Some teachers did not have adequate time to prepare to teach to the Common Core, and the scores reflect that,” said Kremer, the School Boards director.

Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, also stated, “Some resources that would have been helpful to teachers a year ago have only recently been made available by the state Education Department. Also, while adapting daily instruction this year to match the Common Core, school leaders were also mandated to develop and implement complex and demanding procedures for teacher and principal evaluations.”

Commissioner King responded that the Education Department has spent more than $1 billion in state and federal money on professional development and teacher training over the last three years. He also said it would have sent conflicting messages to teachers to continue to test students on the old standards.

“At the end of the day, it is very difficult to persuade people to implement new standards when you have assessments based on the old standards,” he said.

A quick look at fourth- and eighth-grade English and math results showed that even in districts with historically high scores, proficiency levels dropped. Overall, great disparities in test scores were evident from one school district to the next, with affluent suburban districts generally outpacing local city districts.

On the fourth-grade state tests, only three area school districts had at least 50 percent of students meeting or exceeding English proficiency standards: Amherst, Clarence and Williamsville. In Williamsville, consistently the highest-performing district in the region, only 62 percent of eighth-graders were considered English-proficient.

Williamsville Superintendent Scott Martzloff said the new state tests were longer and more difficult than the old assessments, and in many cases, students were given 25 percent less time to finish them.

“Even our best students were rushing through to complete the assessments,” he said.

He also referred to the short timetable for teachers to get up to speed on the Common Core standards.

“We were building the plane while we were flying it,” he said.

The highest local fourth-grade proficiency score in English, for instance, was only 65 percent at Maple West Elementary School in Williamsville. Meanwhile, no children managed to pass the same test at Futures Academy in Buffalo.

Fourth-grade math scores showed an even greater disparity. Ledgeview Elementary in Clarence saw 80 percent of its students meet proficiency standards, while three Buffalo schools – Community School 53, BUILD Academy and Futures Academy – saw no fourth-graders meet proficiency standards.

At the eighth-grade level, Buffalo had both the best and worst results.

City Honors School took the top spot in English proficiency with 80 percent of its students meeting or exceeding stat standards. But three city schools – Lafayette, Harriet Ross Tubman and Alternative – saw no students meet proficiency standards.

In eighth-grade math, the disparity was even worse. City Honors again took the top spot – 75 percent of its students proficient – but 11 Buffalo schools had zero children meeting the proficient standard. Those schools include Futures, Lafayette, International Prep, Herman Badillo, Harriet Ross Tubman, Frank A. Sedita, Dr. Martin Luther King, Community School 53, BUILD and the School of Technology and Alternative schools.

In one bright spot, Lovejoy Discovery School 43 defied state and local trend lines by actually improving its performance on the eighth-grade English exam, from 19 percent proficient last year to 20.5 percent this year.

King said the new Common Core standardized tests are key to improving students’ college and career readiness and to making the state more nationally and globally competitive. He and other state leaders also expressed ongoing concerns about the achievement gap that continues to result in urban, minority, special education and immigrant student populations performing worst.

The English proficiency results for race/ethnicity groups across elementary grades showed that only 16 percent of African-American students and 18 percent of Hispanic students met or exceeded the proficiency standard. That compared with 40 percent for white students and 50 percent for Asian students.

Math results showed a similar disparity: 15 percent for black students, 18 percent for Hispanic students, 38 percent for white students and 60 percent for Asian students.

King said that while he understands that many parents may be upset and panicked by the higher standards that resulted in lower student test performances in the short term, it’s up to every adult to rise to the challenge.

“This is the shared challenge for all the adults in the lives of each child,” he said. “But better to face that challenge in fifth grade than to find out in college that a child has to take a remedial high school course in college that a parent is forced to pay for.

“There’s no simple answer here. There’s just hard work ahead to ensure that all of our students get the help they need.”



News staffers Mary Pasciak and Patrick Lakamp contributed to this story. For much more on this story, visit the School Zone blog at www.BuffaloNews.com/schoolzone email: stan@buffnews.com