Local results of statewide English language arts and mathematic assessment tests, which were released last week, are grim.
Only 10.3 percent of Granville third-graders, for example, were found to be proficient at math, compared to 11.4 percent of eighth-grade students. In Hartford those numbers were 16.1 and 4.5, respectively.
But these shocking results weren’t entirely unexpected or isolated. Statewide, only 31 percent of third through eighth grade students met or exceeded the math proficiency standard.
Mark Bessen, superintendent of the Granville School District, said teachers had no way of preparing for the new standard of assessment.
“The hoop we were training to jump through was behind a curtain, and the curtain was removed right before the test,” he said, explaining that teachers weren’t exposed to the new common core standards until May.
He used an anecdote of military training to explain the tests: If a soldier is annually tested on a two-mile run and sit ups, he trains for such in the months leading up to his test. If he shows up for his test only to be assessed on a completely different set of exercises, he likely won’t perform sufficiently.
“We’re at a new baseline. People have to wrap their heads around what the commissioner is trying to do,” Bessen said.
In a letter to parents, Commissioner John B. King, Jr. explained that this year is a benchmark year that yielded poor results but serves as a way to show future growth.
“You will notice that more students struggled on this year’s test than in previous years. This is because we changed the expectations for New York state students when we adopted the Common Core State Standards,” King wrote.
“From this baseline, the state’s going to be able to measure growth. I’m pretty confident we’ll see that growth,” Bessen said. However, he and Hartford Superintendent Andrew Cook said they were upset when they first saw the results.
“The results were low, but we knew throughout the year that the results would be lower,” Cook said. “Certainly we were disappointed—throughout the year the students and staff worked really hard to keep up with the new common core curriculum,” he said. Bessen said his teachers and student body had done the same “with the little information they had.”
Cook also mentioned that Hartford’s small size means percentage results could be skewed; in certain grade levels one student could represent 4 percent or more of the class.
Both superintendents acknowledged that the high percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch in their districts—55 percent in Granville and 40 percent in Hartford—factors in to comparatively low results.
“According to journals, parents of the underprivileged kids are working harder to make ends meet, so they’re not able to sit down and do homework with them or have those conversations at dinner,” Bessen said. “We need to work harder to reach that kid, and we have to get the parents involved.”
Bessen said students will need a lot of support to be successful with the new core curriculum.
“The curriculum is more concise, but the skills you need to do the curriculum are much deeper. It’s not as broad of a base, but the things they do know, they’ll know well,” he said, explaining that the focus will shift to problem solving.
“It’s not just regurgitation information; it’s deeper thinking skills. It’s higher level thinking, and that’s not a bad thing for anyone.”
Both districts said they are going to emphasize professional development and work with surrounding districts to tackle this problem. Bessen said Granville will now work hard with consultants to improve the district’s math skills, as they did this past year with English.
He pointed out that administrators’ efforts paid off, as Granville scored proportionally higher within the county than it has in the past.
Though these low scores will reflect on teachers with the new APPR (annual professional performance review) standard, the results will be used more as a growth measure. The commissioner urged districts not to penalize their instructors, and neither Hartford nor Granville plans to do so.
“The teachers have done a really good job working with students and trying to increase the rigor of the curriculum. The biggest thing I’m trying to get across to teachers, students and parents is lower test scores do not indicate a drop in performance; the standard is at a much higher level,” Cook said.
“Now that we know what the common core is and the skills the state is looking for, we’re really going to be able to focus in on that,” he said.