State Test Scores Dive, Reflecting Statewide Trend

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Student scores on the South Fork tanked this year on state tests that for the first time measured proficiency in new Common Core learning standards.

After predicting a decline, the State Department of Education confirmed one—a big one, both statewide and regionally—on August 7, when it released the results for English language arts and math assessments taken by third- to eighth-graders this spring.

Statewide, only about 31 percent of students met or exceeded the new ELA or math proficiency standards—meaning that about 69 percent did not. On average on Long Island, about 60 percent of student scores did not meet proficiency levels, and on the South Fork, percentages of passing students plummeted, in certain cases as much as 50 percent.

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. stressed in a news release that while this year’s test scores do indicate that students and teachers “have a long way to go,” the results in no way reflect a decline in performance. Last year’s test was based on different, less rigorous standards and was less rigorously graded, and this year’s was meant to set a baseline for the future.

“Our former standards did not prepare all of our students for 21st century college and careers,” says a letter from the state commissioner to parents, who’ll receive their children’s test results this month. The commissioner’s letter has been posted on the websites of several local school districts, including Montauk, Tuckahoe and Eastport-South Manor.

Robert Tymann, assistant superintendent at the East Hampton School District, said nobody was surprised by the results, but that “the magnitude of the drop was a little surprising.” From what he’d reviewed so far, he was pleased at how East Hampton did relative to the rest of the state, saying that it ranked among the top 10 of 68 districts in Suffolk County in seventh and eighth grade math and in seventh grade ELA with passing rates of 45.5, 53.1 and 50.9 percent, respectively.

Test results for all of the South Fork public schools can be found at 27east.com.

Private schools are not required to administer the tests or, if they choose to do so, publicly report the results, according to Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the State Education Department. Students at the Ross School in East Hampton, for example, do not take state tests, according to Carey London, communications coordinator at Ross.

Students at the Sag Harbor public schools showed highs of 65.1 and 65.4 percent passing rates in fourth grade English and math, respectively, and lows of 34.8 and 24.1 percent proficiency in third-grade English and sixth-grade math, respectively.

Jeff Nichols, the Pierson Middle School and High School principal, said Sag Harbor seemed to score pretty well in ELA compared to other schools in Suffolk County, but that math, especially at the middle school level, was “not quite as good.” He attributed that to what he called an “alignment issue” in the curriculum, which might be shared by other districts that have an accelerated curriculum: Sag Harbor offers algebra, which is normally taught in ninth grade, to all students in eighth grade to allow them to go further when they get to high school, but the state tests for proficiency in regular eighth grade math.

Like many other districts, Sag Harbor has been bringing in consultants to work with teachers and building principals in implementing Common Core curriculum and assessments—in Pierson’s case, in math. “We’re sort of pleased that we’ve already got things set up,” Mr. Nichols said.

According to administrators across the East End, education has shifted from a broad, general understanding of facts to a more focused, analytical understanding of topics. Instead of focusing on basics like learning fractions, the student is expected to understand them on a deeper level and how to apply them in everyday applications.

The first step in implementing the new curriculum, both state and local officials have said, is to make sure teachers know and understand what is expected of students moving forward. While the teachers were operating with little guidance from the State Education Department this year, new teaching modules are being “rolled out” to help them plan lessons.

“We tried very early on to get involved in revising our curriculum and working with teachers to prepare for the necessary shift for the new standards,” Westhampton Beach District Superintendent Michael Radday said this week, echoing what many other administrators have said. “The important thing was to give teachers an opportunity to become familiar with the standards and provide them with the resources necessary to make the shift.”

Westhampton’s highest passing rate was a 75.6 percent in third grade math and 57.6 percent in third grade English. Its lowest were 37.3 percent in eighth grade math and 32.3 percent in sixth grade English.

Shifts in the ELA curriculum include more emphasis on non-fiction and information-driven texts than previously, when fiction was the primary focus, and a deeper level of questioning when asking students to interpret texts: For example, instead of asking when someone did something in a reading passage, the test will ask why the person did what they did.

Sample questions can also be found at 27east.com.

In math, there is a new emphasis on concepts, deep understanding and fluency, with the latter meaning that calculators will not be allowed when state tests are given to third- to fifth-graders. Students in grade six are allowed a basic four-function calculator, and grades seven and eight can use a scientific calculator.

Although the new curriculum and tests are designed to raise the bar for students, local educators agree that the children are rising to the challenge, regardless of what the initial test results say.

“The kids are doing great,” fourth grade Westhampton Beach teacher Jamie Thom said. “If you set the bar high, they will get there, and they will rise to the expectations.”

This week, Ms. Thom, who has been teaching fourth grade for the past nine years, said the scores will improve as teachers learn more. Like many others, her district has been providing teachers with professional development, and this summer elementary school teachers in her district have been working to break down the education modules and set a specific schedule for when and how topics will be taught.

“The new curriculum is much more rigorous and critical thinking-based,” she said. “I have found this year that the lessons I was designing were at a higher level for all of the students—they were much more difficult. All of these lessons are designed for the more rigorous testing, and that was a challenge.”

“It will make sense long-term,” said Mr. Tymann, the assistant superintendent in East Hampton, who noted that school districts, like the states, were “running as fast as they can” to keep up with evolving new mandates, which originated at the federal level with the Race to the Top initiative.

“It’s hard to argue with getting away from rote memorization to synthesis and analysis of information,” he said. “Who can argue that that’s not an improvement?”

“It’s only going to make sense if you step back and accept that we have to get better at educating,” Mr. Tymann said. “I believe that our students are getting a better education than they were a decade ago due to the changes.”

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