Students in the Whitehall Central School District continue to lag behind their peers across the state and county on standardized state tests.
According to test results released by the state last week, the percentage of Whitehall students in grades three through eight who achieved proficiency on English Language Arts and math exams was below state and county averages.
Superintendent James Watson did not mince words about the results, calling them unacceptable.
“We did not score as well as we would have liked. We didn’t anticipate that we’d score as high because of the new standards but we are never satisfied when we see that our students didn’t score well on tests,” he said.
At every grade level, the percentage of Whitehall students who achieved proficiency on the English Language Arts exam was below state and county averages, and in some instances, significantly so.
Of the 61 grade three students who took the English exam, only 10 percent passed, compared to 31 percent of students across the state and nearly 20 percent in Washington County.
At every level except grade eight, fewer than 20 percent of students passed the English exam.
Local students performed slightly better on math exams but still lagged behind the state average at every grade level. Fewer than 10 percent of students passed the exam in grades three, five and seven.
The percentage of third grade students who passed the math test (7 percent) was the lowest in the county.
Reasons for Optimism
There was, however, a lot of variation in the scores from one grade level to the next and some reason to believe—at least in certain areas—that Whitehall is closing the performance gap.
Students in grade eight, for instance, performed better than the county average on the math test with 22 percent passing, compared to 17 percent across the county. Only Fort Ann (42 percent) and Greenwich (28) performed better. Fourth grade students also fared well on the math test, with 26 percent passing, well below the state average of 36 percent but above the county average of 23 percent.
On the English exam, the performance of eighth grade students was comparative to the county and Whitehall performed better than Fort Edward and Hudson Falls.
“We were right in line with some of the other schools,” Watson said, “and the eighth grade math scores were better than Argyle, Cambridge, Fort Edward, Granville, Hartford, Hudson Falls and Salem.
So there are some positives that we can take away.”
He said that professional development opportunities and new, data-driven teaching methods practiced by staff should allow scores to improve in the future.
Why the struggles?
Students in Whitehall have had difficulty in achieving proficiency on standardized tests in recent years.
One reason may lie in the percentage of low to moderate income students. Nearly 60 percent of Whitehall students receive free or reduced lunch and economically disadvantaged students traditionally do not perform as well on standardized tests. Across the state, only 19 percent of those students passed the English exam compared to 31 percent across the state.
Special needs students also tend to struggle on standardized tests and Whitehall has a high percentage of high needs students. Statewide, only seven percent of all students with disabilities passed the math exam and only 5 percent of those students passed the English exam. Those rates were not available for Whitehall students.
Scores across the state dropped precipitously this year as a result of more difficult tests and a more rigorous curriculum, state education officials said.
Statewide, only 31 percent of students passed the exams in English and math. Last year, 55 percent of students passed the English exam and 65 percent the math exam.
The decline in scores was expected as this year’s tests were the first to measure Common Core Learning Standards and state officials emphasized that the results do not reflect a decrease in performance for schools and students.
New York was one of the first states in the country to develop exams aligned with the new Common Core standards, which emphasize deeper analysis and creative problem solving.
The standards, which have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, have been billed as a more effective approach to preparing students for college and the workforce.
According to the state Education Department, the percentage of students who graduate from high school is 74 percent (Whitehall’s graduation rate falls in the mid 80s). However the number of students who graduate college or are career ready, defined by the state as students who score at least a 75 on English Regents and an 80 on a math Regents, (which correlates with success in first year college course) is only 35 percent.
Those in favor of Common Core standards believe the new methods can address this problem.
But Watson said applying a common curriculum and using similar teaching methods to instruct rural students may not work for urban students and vice versa.
“They have a different vernacular and come from families with different experiences,” he said, adding that districts should have the flexibility to tailor instruction to their students. “I don’t think you can have a one-size-fits-all curriculum.”
Common Core standards will be applied to Regents exams this year and the Class of 2017 will be the first class that must pass Common Core Regents exams as a requirement of graduation.