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Elementary and middle school students did modestly better on statewide math exams tied to Common Core standards this year, but made little progress in English compared with a year ago.

Despite another full year of preparation by schools after the rollout of state Common Core tests in 2013, there were no dramatic, across-the-board gains in English this year. Large-city districts saw slight year-to-year improvement, but wealthier suburban districts statewide actually saw overall declines on the English exam.

Math results in both high- and low-need districts improved overall, however, and students across all races and ethnicities showed gains in math.

“We must and we can do better,” Education Chancellor Merryl Tisch told reporters as the state Education Department released test scores for schools across the state.

Locally, administrators in some suburban schools that saw a significant number of students refuse to take the tests this spring said they believed that greatly impacted their scores.

“We know that the data we are receiving is about half of our students,” said Lake Shore Superintendent James Przepasniak. “So we have to take into consideration that a large portion of our students at each grade level did not take the assessment.”

The statewide math and English exams given to third- through eighth-graders have become a flash point in education since the state began testing students on new learning standards at about the same time it rolled out a new teacher evaluation system based, in part, on the state test scores. Anger over the state tests led groups of parents in some districts to direct their children not to take them this year.

Still, educators said they would use the results of the tests to pinpoint areas of instruction where students appear to be lagging.

“In public education none of us can afford to be complacent,” 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 Buffalo post this summer. “We need to embrace the new tools and the urgency that we face.”

Statewide, the percentage of students who scored proficient or higher in math rose from 31.2 percent to 35.8 percent across all grade levels.

The percentages for English Language Arts, however, grew from only 31.3 percent to 31.4 percent, according to state Education Department calculations. The calculations looked at how students did this year compared to how those same students scored last year in a lower grade. For that reason, students who refused to take the exams this year or did not take the exams in 2013 were not included in statewide comparisons.

English language learners – immigrant and refugee students – continued to struggle the most, with only 2.6 percent considered proficient in English, though the percentage of those considered partially proficient showed improvement over last year.

Buffalo’s scores mimicked the statewide trend.

In math, Buffalo saw an increase from 11.4 percent to 13.1 percent of students who scored proficient or higher, placing Buffalo’s results above those of Rochester and Syracuse but below those of Yonkers and New York City among the Big Five urban school districts.

In English, Buffalo saw an increase from 12.1 percent to 12.2 percent. Those results again place Buffalo in the middle of the pack among the Big Five districts, trailing Yonkers and New York City.

“Even if there’s a difference of two or three points, you’re still looking at 20 years from where you want to be,” said James Sampson, Buffalo’s school board president. “What we have to continue to focus on is the quality of instruction.”

The minor gains in Buffalo were carried by a relatively small number of schools, with the vast majority showing little to no improvement.

State Education Commissioner John King said that he considered this year’s statewide scores “encouraging” overall. Incremental progress is expected, he said.

“We’re encouraged by these results, but we see them as just part of the picture,” he said.

Tisch described the statewide test results as “a story of modest but real progress.”

Many suburban schools saw significant declines in their eighth-grade scores this year. In Clarence, 52 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in English this year, compared with 64 percent the previous year. The decline was more dramatic in math – 30 percent were proficient this year, compared to 59 percent last year.

State officials noted that eighth-grade math scores were impacted by a new policy that allows accelerated students who take Regents algebra exams to not take the eighth-grade math standardized test.

School administrators said the state tests, required by federal law, are just one measure to determine how well a student is performing.

“What we try to do is remind our parents that, while this is one important piece, it’s not the full piece,” said Marie Balen, assistant superintendent for instruction for Williamsville Central Schools. “What we strive to do is paint a full picture of the student, and that includes many sources of information.”

News Staff Reporter Mary B. Pasciak contributed to this report. email: djgee@buffnews.com stan@buffnews.com and tlankes@buffnews.com