Schools failing top students: Board hears grim Regents results

F ailure rates on Regents tests, including some of those for Granville High School’s top-level students, have increased steadily and in some cases, dramatically.

Principal James Donnelly is searching for answers and said the school is already putting a response in place.

“We have an awful lot of work to do in the math department,” said Donnelly, who told members of the Board of Education Monday that problems with math are partly the issue for failures in science tests as well, and that there are problems with scores in all disciplines.

“We have declining passing and mastery rates and a steady increase in the failure rate,” he said during a presentation of charts that compared this year’s scores with those going back up to five years. “I wish I could present this in a more positive way, but I hate to mince words.

“We have to do a better job of getting to the root cause of why the kids are failing,” he said.

Donnelly, who is starting his second year as principal, said the school has already started in-service programs for teachers and will continue bringing a math consultant in to work directly with teachers. He said he will also directly intervene.

“I will be in the classroom right off the bat. Right off from the get-go,” he said. “That’s something I should have been doing last year.”

Board of Education members had few comments for Donnelly, but they were clearly taken aback by the scores.

“I’m very upset with this, and I know the rest of the board is very upset also,” said Chairman John Shaw. “We are going to work hard to correct this.”

One of the examples of serious issues involved the algebra 2 / trigonometry Regents, in which 68 percent of the students failed to pass.  Last year, 65 percent of the students failed to reach the standard and in 2009-2010, 50 percent failed.

“We need work,” Donnelly said while the algebra 2 / trigonometry slide was on the computer screen.

Donnelly told a parent at the meeting that the scores on this test were so low, they were not used as a final examination for the course as they have been in the past.

“That would not have been right. I tried to do the best for the kids.”

Superintendent Mark Bessen pointed out that these numbers do not match those provided by the state, because the results the board was considering count all the times a student takes the tests – which are offered three times a year.

“You could have a student who failed three times or a student who passed with below an 85, then took it again and scored higher,” he said. “In reality, the state only looks at one score.”

Donnelly will review the results and be presenting them again at the next board meeting, which is Aug. 13.


Issues on other tests

The problems with the Regents results are two-fold. The failure rates are higher than school officials want — in fact, Donnelly wants to see passing rates higher than 90 percent in some areas — and the number of failures is consistently rising from year to year. Some of these tests are for single classes, so administrators can trace declines to specific issues, such as a teacher being out on leave or a teaching leaving unexpectedly.

Two other tests had failure rates of at least 50 percent. In chemistry, 51 percent of the students failed and in physics, 50 percent failed.

“These are our best students. We have to get a handle on this,” Donnelly said. “The chemistry failure rate almost doubled, and in physics there was a similar dynamic.”

Passing the Regents test is not a case of getting 65 percent or better on the test, Donnelly pointed out. The tests are graded on a rubric, or scale. After all tests are corrected, they are set to a central scoring location, where all tests are evaluated and a passing mark is established. For some test, that standard can be as low as 37 percent correct to earn a Regents mark of 65.

The integrated algebra test represents both issues the school is facing.

This year, 42.1 percent of the students scored 64 or below, 48 percent scored between 65 and 84, and 10 percent scored 85 or better.

Putting it in historical context, in 2007-2008, 10 percent of students failed the test. The following year it was 30 percent, went to 33 percent in 2009-2010 and 37 percent last year.

Of the nine tests Donnelly discussed at the meeting, geometry had the best results, with 37 percent scoring 85 or better, another 58 percent meeting the passing score, and only 5 percent failing. But Donnelly pointed out that special education students have not been taking standard Regents test in the past, “and those tests are going away.”

The U.S. history test, which Donnelly describes as one of the easiest, also showed a fairly steady increase in failure rates and a fairly significant jump from last year to this year.

“We have to do a better job on U.S. history. They spend their whole school careers learning about our history. This is a review of what they have been exposed to for the last years,” Donnelly said. “There should be a 95 to 100 passing rate.”

This year, 25 percent of the students failed the test, while 37 percent scored 65 to 84 and 38 percent got 85 to 100. Last year’s failure rate was 17 percent, and it was 14 the year before.

Global history broke the pattern and showed a major decline in the number of students failing. In 2010-11, 46 percent of the students failed, down to 37 percent this year.

Two other tests Donnelly discussed were earth science and living environment. Earth science has had the steadiest failure rates, and this year’s test was at 24. It also had one of the best rates of students scoring 85 or better at 34.1 percent.  The living environment test had similar results, with 23 percent of the students passing.

On the English Regents, 110 of the 136 students who took it passed, leaving the failure rate at 19 percent.

“That’s better than a lot of the other tests, but it still needs to be higher,” Donnelly said.


Looking for answers

Donnelly said the school must look at the results and find better ways to train teachers to present the material to students.

“We have to do better,” he said.

Donnelly said there were some issues that may have contributed to the lower results.

“I am not making excuses, but I can tell you I have been out of the building at least 10 times for full days for Race to the Top, Schools in need of Improvement and other meetings, and so have a lot of teachers,” he said. “This is the most I have ever seen in my career. This all serves to dissipate our energy.”

Donnelly pointed to his afternoon on Monday, just before the meeting.

“I was supposed to be taking part in a webinar with the state’s expert on the Schools in Need of Improvement program. Finally, I just had to shut it off, because we have a master schedule to finish.”



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