M iddle school students in the Whitehall School district are outperforming their peers statewide and more students are graduating but elementary and high school students continue to score lower than their peers across the state.
The percentage of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students in the Whitehall School district who are meeting the basic standards on state tests in English, math, and science, meets or exceeds the state average.
At most other levels, however, Whitehall’s scores are behind the state average according to the New York State District Report Card, released earlier this month by the Education Department.
Overall the district is in good standing, and graduation rates exceed the state standard. But students in the high school failed to make adequate progress in English. Elementary and middle school students with disabilities also failed to make adequate yearly progress in English and math for the second consecutive year.
English scores at the high school
According to the report, 32 percent of last year’s graduating class failed to meet basic standards in English after four years of instruction compared to the state average of 17 percent.
And while the performance of students across the state remained relatively unchanged, the performance of Whitehall students got worse.
The number of students who failed to meet basic standards in English increased 11 percent in Whitehall compared to the previous year, while the percentage at the state actually decreased by a single percent.
Interestingly, the percentage of Whitehall students who exceeded standards in English was equal to the state average of 35 percent, so the best performing students seem to be doing well in that subject.
Kelly McHugh, principal at Whitehall High School, said the district has taken efforts to improve its results.
The district can choose to have students take the English Regents exam in either January or June, and the district has opted for the earlier date.
McHugh said that allows teachers to spend an entire semester working closely with students who fail the test. The increased face time allows staff to address the places where students struggled.
McHugh said the single biggest indicator of progress she looks at is graduation rates, which rose from 73 percent in 2009-10 to 84 percent in 2010-11, above the state standard of 80 percent.
“I’m thrilled about the graduation rates. We live in an economy where graduating high school is a necessity,” McHugh said.
“The rates had hovered around 70 percent for a few years and that’s not good enough. My vision or goal is to get to 90 percent and above.”
McHugh said she meets with counselors and other staff each week to identify individual students who are falling behind and then determine how they can allocate resources to help those students.
She said that coupled with the district’s AIS program, which provides additional review and assistance for students, and meetings with parents have helped rates increase.
Students with disabilities
The report also showed that students with disabilities failed to make adequate yearly progress in English and math at the elementary and middle school levels.
Fewer than half the students with disabilities in grades three and five met basic standards in English, while only 58 percent of those students at the sixth-grade level achieved basic standards.
Math scores weren’t much better.
Exactly half the students in third and sixth grade met standards, while slightly more than half (55 percent) did the same in fifth grade.
Seventh- and eighth-graders fared better in English, with 67 and 83 percent meeting standards, respectively. Seventh-graders also performed well in math, with 83 percent meeting basic standards, while only 20 percent of eighth-graders did the same.
Struggles among disabled students are not unique to Whitehall, however.
“There are 1,324 schools struggling with the same issue. That tells you something,” said David St. Germain, elementary school principal.
Students with disabilities are held to the same standard as other students, which St. Germain said is an admirable goal, but one that may not be fair. The struggles of those students are often magnified in a district like Whitehall, where percentages are affected by a smaller student population.
“There are fewer kids and that sways the percentages,” St. Germain said.
Overall, he admitted he was not happy with scores at the elementary school, but with standards and tests changing every year, he said officials often feel they are playing catch-up. For instance, this year’s tests will be different than next year, when the state will begin implementing “common core standards,” which define the standards all students are expected to achieve.
“Sometimes it’s like hitting a moving target. The cut points for levels four, three, two and one changed two years ago and our scores went down. If they hadn’t changed, we would have shown growth in many areas,” St. Germain said. “It’s hard to compare one year from the next because expectations and tests are always changing.”
“We’re working on it and I expect that next year scores will come up.”
Middle school students perform well
One of the positive developments highlighted by the report is the performance of students at the middle school level. The only exceptions were sixth- and eighth-grade math, which were within a few percentage points of the state average.
More than 90 percent of all middle school students met or exceeded basic standards in English, including 99 percent of eighth-graders.
And at least 88 percent of students met or exceeded basic standards in math, highlighted by 98 percent of seventh-graders.
Eighth-grade science students also did well, with 97 percent of students achieving basic standards or better.
McHugh said English scores have improved because the district has implemented a program that screens the reading abilities of seventh- and eighth-graders three times a year.
The screenings allow staff to modify and target their instruction to fit the needs of the students and helped improved testing results.
Copies of the school report card are available online at http://reportcards.nysed.gov.