July 29, 2010


State test change lowers scores

Educators try to understand, adjust to new assessment scoring

ScoresBob Ellis/staff photographer
SUNY Cortland graduate student Kristin Weeks works with Lindsey Van Dusen, and Brandon Tvaroha on creating a puzzle to demonstrate what they just read in this file photo.

Staff Reporter
New York state has raised the bar for its assessment tests in math and English language arts, leaving educators to wonder how to adjust what they teach and how to explain the scores to taxpayers.
Local school districts generally improved on the tests for grades three through eight — at least, according to the scoring done before the state changed its standards earlier this month.
The test scores released Wednesday by the state Education Department use a new cutoff score for proficiency and redefine which students need help to graduate from high school and go to college without remedial classes.
The cutoff score for proficiency, or Level 3 of the four levels, was raised from 650 to varying levels depending on the grade. Level 4 means mastery of the subject.
The higher standard meant more students scored not just at Level 3 than in previous years but also at Level 2. School officials said this means some students at Level 2 are actually on track to graduate from high school but need more help.
The state Board of Regents changed the standard earlier this month because it felt students did not know as much, and were not as prepared for college, as the test scores indicated.
Education Commissioner David Steiner said studies showed New York eighth-graders who scored at Level 3 on the ELA test still had a 50-50 chance of getting a 75 out of 100 on the Regents English test. A score of 75 means a student needs remedial work at many colleges, according to the Education Department.
New York students were also improving on state tests but remaining flat on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test that samples students nationwide but is not taken by every student. But Steiner wants to adjust New York’s curriculum to match a national curriculum, which will help the state receive federal aid.
New York was named a finalist for the second round of Race to the Top funds from the Obama Administration.
Statewide, students in the six grades dropped from 77 percent at proficiency to 53 percent in ELA, and from 86 percent proficiency to 61 percent in math.
Superintendents of schools and principals say they need to digest the new scores and cannot compare this year to previous years.
“It’s like the health department saying that a good weight was 125 pounds but now it’s 100 pounds, so instead of 50 percent of the population being overweight, now it’s 75 percent,” said Brenda Myers, Groton superintendent of schools. “The percentage has changed not because people gained weight but because the standard changed.”
Myers said Groton students showed steady growth in both subject areas, but this year’s scores will not reflect that. She said the public needs to see these scores as just one piece of a child’s education, along with other subjects and athletics and the arts.
Schools will need to sort out next year how to adjust what they teach and how, as the state redefines that as well.
Her opinion was echoed by other superintendents of schools and by DeRuyter’s elementary principal, Kim O’Brien.
Sandy Sherwood, Dryden superintendent of schools, said her teachers followed the curriculum and assessment scoring the state wanted, only to have the rules change. She said this is difficult when teachers know their performance will be tied to student performance in the years ahead.
But Sherwood said the state has the right to raise expectations, and teachers need to handle it and help parents understand it.
Larry Spring, Cortland superintendent of schools, said officials can compare this year to previous years if they break the scores down by scale, but that is too difficult to do for the public’s benefit.
Students with disabilities were affected the most. Statewide, the percentage of such students who reached proficiency in ELA dropped from 37 percent last year to 15 percent. The number proficient in math fell from 58 percent to 25 percent.
Spring said that means students who had improved enough to no longer be classified as needing special education could now be returned to it, which would be a blow for them.
Cortland students’ scores varied, with Virgil Elementary posting the best results. Third- and fifth-graders in the five elementary schools scored at 15 percent for Level 4 but only 4.5 percent of sixth-graders scored that well on their test.
Doug Larison, Homer superintendent of schools, said changing the score standard could help schools clarify which students were prepared for college and which needed more help.
“President Obama wants more kids to go to college, if our country is to succeed,” Larison said. “That means all kinds of colleges, such as the ones that teach a trade.”
State education officials said 44 percent of students at two-year colleges from 1998 until 2007 needed remedial work. For four-year colleges, the number is 13 percent.
Larison said teachers could have taken more action to offer help, if they had known during the school year about the higher score standard.
O’Brien said the scores do not reflect how much DeRuyter students improved under the old scoring standards, which is likely to happen especially in smaller schools such as DeRuyter, McGraw and Cincinnatus, with 40 or fewer students in a grade.
None of DeRuyter’s seventh graders achieved Level 4 in ELA but 40.5 percent achieved Level 3. Its fourth graders showed a similar pattern, with only 6 percent reaching Level 4 and 45.5 reaching Level 3.
But there were only 37 seventh-graders and 33 fourth-graders in the district.
Other districts showed a similar pattern with fourth-graders, with a large number scoring at Level 3.


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