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With the latest round of state standardized test scores showing marginal improvements in reading and math, some local educators have been quick to blame the lackluster results on the high number of students who opted out from taking the test.

Yet in this new era of rigor and tough assessments, the real answer is far more complicated.

State Education Commissioner John King and other top officials dismissed claims that students who opted out of the state assessments were high achievers whose lack of participation depressed the test scores at their schools. A state review showed that those who took the tests in 2013 – but opted out of the tests in 2014 – covered the entire performance spectrum, King said.

The state, however, has been coy in its response to any requests for firm numbers of exactly how many students refused to take the test.

Rather, King and supporters say schools and teachers can still use the data from the test to gauge how well students are meeting the new Common Core standards, using the results to pinpoint specific areas where students need extra help and directing resources appropriately. Some local educators say they will spend the next few weeks going through that process to be ready when students return in September.

“These are the data, what the data point to, where we need to focus our efforts,” said Donald A. Ogilvie, interim superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools, who served as a liaison to the state for 19 local school districts before taking the city post this summer. “It’s a new area of specialty in the schools, but it’s becoming one of the most important activities that we engage in.”

Still, the latest scores did little to alleviate the worries of educators and parents who have concerns about how the tests are used. The critics say schools spend too much time preparing for the assessments, and that the process stresses students. They also worry that poor results will lead to punitive sanctions for schools and teachers.

But top education leaders show no signs of backing down.

They say the focus should be on making sure students are learning, and districts should use the state test results in combination with other measures to do that.

“There is an overemphasis, I think, on making too much out of a state test,” said Robert M. Bennett, chancellor emeritus of the state Board of Regents. “Even though we’re required to give it, in the overall scheme of things, it doesn’t matter as much as the local assessments that are used by teachers and principals and superintendents to measure a child’s progress.”

A new standard

Despite some of the buzz surrounding the test, state assessments are nothing new for New York students.

The state has long given reading and math tests to fourth- and eighth-graders to gauge their skills in those subjects.

Then in 2001, the federal No Child Left Behind law mandated that states administer tests to all students in third through eighth grades. New York fully implemented the law’s testing requirement in 2006, expanding its testing to thousands more students.

The system changed again last year when the state introduced a new test aligned to the more rigorous Common Core, an effort to develop consistent academic standards across the country.

The new standards are more rigorous, involving more writing across all subject areas, a greater emphasis on nonfiction and a different approach to math that requires students to work through complex, multistep math problems.

The result – at least in the first two years with the test – has been dramatically lower performance, even among suburban school districts that historically performed well.

And those scores now factor into teacher evaluations, although educators can’t lose their job because of their students’ state test performance.

Still, that’s little comfort to administrators in districts where large numbers of students opted out, something they say affected their overall performance and diminished the usefulness of the results.

In West Seneca, for example, the percentage of students who opted out at each grade level ranged from 27 percent to 63 percent.

“We respected the rights of parents to make a decision,” said Mark Crawford, superintendent of the West Seneca schools, where about a third of students opted out of the test.

“We knew that our opt-out numbers were very significant and would have an impact on the achievement levels for students, especially for Levels 3 and 4,” he added. “So at the moment, I can’t tell you what it means from the state’s point of view.”

Making sense of data

In the face of this criticism, state education leaders show no signs Common Core is going away anytime soon. And even as some lawmakers have called for change, the state is still bound by the federal laws that require testing.

With that reality, some districts have turned their focus to figuring out how they can best use the data to improve their results.

In Williamsville, administrators begin by reviewing the test data by grade level to see how student learning progresses as students move from one grade level to the next.

“If we see something that doesn’t quite line up in our minds, or if it doesn’t quite align with other measures of performance that we have, we strive to understand why that’s the case and what we could do to address the area that we’re looking at,” said Marie Balen, an assistant superintendent for instruction in Williamsville.

Administrators use the state test information as a starting point, but also review other district measures and compare their results to similar school districts.

“Certainly, the teacher’s observation of the student as he or she is learning in the classroom is a very powerful piece of information,” she said.

Buffalo’s new leadership team also plans to take a more proactive role helping teachers understand how to best introduce the Common Core standards in their classrooms. Performance in Buffalo once again lagged behind the area’s suburban school systems, but the district fell in the middle of the pack among New York’s larger urban districts.

As in Williamsville, that will involve using the state test data in combination with other assessments and observations that can help teachers tailor lessons to their students’ needs.

“That’s how we developed programs – looking at what the students need,” said Linda Cimusz, Buffalo’s new chief academic officer, who formerly worked in Williamsville. Cimusz also helped design the accountability system for Texas when she worked there as a deputy commissioner.

“Over the years things have become more sophisticated,” she said. “Data has been used differently. For one thing, there is more data available.”

Buffalo district administrators are also looking for any bright spots among their schools.

One school that saw improvements in both reading and math was the Stanley M. Makowski Early Childhood Center, which put more focus on making sure teachers understood the new standards and how to best introduce them to students.

The school also came up with its own internal assessment system that it used to pinpoint its students’ strengths and weaknesses, and where they needed help mastering the standards.

“From a district-wide leadership perspective, you want to show in some of the buildings this is possible and use that as a rallying cry for the rest,” Ogilvie said.

News Staff Reporter Sandra Tan contributed to this report email: tlankes@buffnews.com and djgee@buffnews.com