The abysmal performance of city students on state exams taken last April didn't surprise anyone. That alone makes a statement. But Superintendent Bolgen Vargas says higher state standards are at least partly to blame for the lower scores.
The recently released scores in English language arts and math for grades 3 to 8 showed that only 20 percent of Rochester's students met grade-level standards in English and reading. And less than 30 percent were proficient in math.
What's worse: nobody seems to know why city students' academic performance isn't improving or what to do about it.
It's not as if school district and city officials haven't tried. Over the last 30 years, schools have been opened and closed, large schools broken up into smaller schools, millions invested in sophisticated technology to track student performance, legislation passed to help rid Rochester's homes and apartments of lead and its brain-damaging effects on children. Even the state has stepped-up pressure on teachers and principals; new evaluations are intended to increase accountability in the profession.
But if any of this has had a positive impact on student achievement, there's scant evidence of it. No matter where you stand on standardized tests, it's impossible not to see that thousands of Rochester's students are on a frightening trajectory to failure.
Research shows that students who aren't reading at grade level by the third grade have a high risk of not graduating, Vargas says. That means out of the 2,359 third graders who took the most recent ELA test, as many as 50 percent could drop out or take 14 to 15 years to complete high school.
And even if they graduate on time, there's little evidence they will be prepared to enter college or the work force.
In comparison, 67 percent of third graders in the Penfield Central School District were reading at grade level when the last ELA was given. Fifteen percent were reading above the third-grade standard.
The same is true for their math scores. About 57 percent performed at grade level, and 33 percent performed above grade level.
The picture does not improve for students in Rochester's middle grades. For example, out of the 2,131 seventh graders who took the ELA test, barely 16 percent were reading and performing at grade level. It seems that the obstacles hindering students in the lower grades have almost ossified by middle school.
It's not difficult to predict what will happen to these students in high school; the majority will be too far behind to catch up.
The district's most recent attempt to address low student performance — phasing out low performing schools and opening new schools — doesn't look promising. Despite the fanfare about creating a portfolio of more rigorous schools, many of the district's newly opened schools are on the same pathway as the failing schools they replaced.
At Northwest College Prep High School, for example, only 11 percent of seventh-grade students performed at grade level on the ELA. About 16 percent met proficiency standards in math.
Superintendent Vargas says that improving student achievement will require systemic changes in the district. And he has reframed the argument in a way that doesn't allow the discussion to become bogged down in a debate about poverty and its influence on student achievement.
In 2009, 56 percent of city students in grades 3 to 8 were reading at grade level, he says. But then the state introduced higher standards.
"A lot of people assumed that our students' performance declined," Vargas says. "But that's not true."
He says students need more academic and social-emotional support to meet those higher standards, including longer school days. He says it's a cost-effective investment to break the cycle of low achievement.
"Prevention is timely," Vargas says. "It's much harder and costs more to intervene, and that's what we've been trying to do."