Schools grapple with how to solve dismal test scores

G ranville school administrators and teachers are playing a new role now that they have had a chance to look at the weak Regents scores for the 2011-2012 school year.

All of a sudden, they are detectives.

“We’ve got to identify where the breakdown was,” said Superintendent Mark Bessen when asked about the district’s response to the results, which included three tests with failure rates of 50 percent or higher. “Was it vocabulary? Was it writing? Was it interpreting charts or graphs?

“We need to look at curriculum, materials and examine how it is being taught,” Bessen said. “We’ve got to ask what we can do all together to improve instruction for our children.”

Principal James Donnelly agreed that there are several reasons for the low scores.

“There is no one single factor,” he said. “We have to hone down some of the causal relationships and do some analysis of the root cause.

“We’ve got to look at the assessment itself, the theory behind how we are teaching it and the idea of academic intervention to see how we can help the students who are having trouble. We also have to look at attendance.”

Donnelly said there are other factors.

“Some of the issues fall into administrative issues. We need to look at the master schedule and see how we can use that to help improve scores.”

As the schedule is drawn up, Donnelly said, administrators will focus on making sure teachers are available to give extra help to students who need it.

 

Making it better

Administrators already had that and some other plans in place prior to the release of the scores.

Donnelly said the school had a math consultant training teachers earlier this year, and he told the school board she will be back in the fall to continue that training and will spend at least eight days in the classroom with teachers.

Donnelly also said he plans to get into classrooms right away and will be focusing on the math and science issues.

He said many teachers are already taking part in training that focuses on Regents-related issues, both in content and in teaching methods.

The school will be hiring at least six new teachers for the upcoming year, and among the questions all applicants are being asked are queries about their experience with Regents tests and with the state curriculum. The state tests are drawn directly from the common core curriculum, which is used by about half the states in the country.

Other initiatives will come out after the administrators and teachers analyze the data. There could be changes in teaching methods, more training or other changes.

There is one other area which both Bessen and Donnelly are focused on, and that is raising standards in the classroom.

“We can’t be teaching to not fail. We have to be teaching for mastery. There has to be more rigor,” he said.

One of the issues, nationwide, is that both parents and students are pushing hard for higher grades. The more rigorous the course, the harder it is to get a high grade and in the arena of competitive colleges, grades are crucial.

But, as Bessen points out, there is very often a link between higher standards in the classroom and success on Regents tests.

 

Possible repercussions

Bessen acknowledges that he and Donnelly would be the ones to be held most accountable if scores do not improve. Bessen recently received an extension and has three years remaining on his contract. Donnelly is in the second year of a three-year probation period.

Teachers who have been at the school fewer than three years can be terminated, but that becomes much more difficult when they have tenure.

“Once a teacher is tenured, it is nearly impossible to change the pool,” Donnelly said.

John Shaw, the Board of Education president, said much the same thing.

“We have to work with what we have in place,” Shaw said. “We cannot clean house and start over.”

Board member Dan Nelson, a retired Granville teacher, pointed to two things he felt would make a difference.

“Rigor and accountability. Those are the two things,” he said. “Instructional planning has to align with the New York Regents curriculum.”

As far as what could happen to the district if the problems continue, Bessen said that is now up in the air.

“The state just got a waiver from some parts of ‘No Child Left Behind,’ but we don’t know exactly when the changes are going to go into effect. One potential change will be to evaluate teachers and schools on the Regents tests.”

The latest set of state standardized tests, one of which Granville did better than it did on the Regents, is also crucial to teachers.

Effective this year, the state is requiring standardized testing be used as part of teachers’ annual professional performance review.

“This year is the baseline,” Bessen said. “Their progress will be compared to this year.”
Granville, which is in negotiations for a teacher contract, has not yet come to an agreement with its teachers on the evaluation plan.

 

Tough numbers

The highest failure rate came on the algebra 2 / trigonometry Regents, a course designed for upper-level students. Sixty-eight percent of the students failed this year, up slightly from 65 last year.

Two other tests saw at least half the local students who attempted them fail. In chemistry, 51 percent of the students failed and in physics, 50 percent failed.

The integrated algebra test had a failure rate of 42 percent. The geometry test had the best numbers, with 95 percent of the students passing. U.S. history also had strong numbers, with 75 percent of the students passing. The global history failure rate was 37, down almost nine points from last year.

Earth science has had the steadiest failure rates over the last few years, and this year’s test was at 24. It also had one of the best rates of students scoring 85 or better at 34 percent.  The living environment test had similar results, with 23 percent of the students passing.

The English Regents had much better results, with 81 percent of the students scoring the 65 required to pass or better. Still, Donnelly wants to see more.

“On the English test, we should be looking at a passing rate of 90 to 100, preferably 95 or better,” he said. “That’s where we should be on the U.S. history Regents as well. That’s a test of what they have been learning their whole lives in school.” He said the global history test should also be in that range.

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