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Tests reveal a lot or nothing at all


The results of last spring's statewide testing for grades 3 to 8 in English and math were released last week, and there are multiple reasons to be concerned with the scores.

On the upside, proficiency levels improved overall statewide in 2018, including in the Big Five districts: the state's largest cities, including Rochester. ("Proficient" means students have mastered the basics in that subject.) More than 45 percent of the state's students were proficient in English, compared to 39.8 percent a year ago. And 44.5 percent were proficient in math compared to 40.2 percent in 2017.

But the Rochester school district, although it improved slightly, remains the lowest performing of the Big Five. Only 11.4 percent of Rochester's students were proficient in English for grades 3 to 8, a slight improvement from 7.6 percent from a year ago. And 10.7 percent of Rochester's students were proficient in math in grades 3 to 8, compared to 7.9 percent from a year ago.

African-American and Latino students in Rochester still lag well behind their white peers in English. Only 8 percent of African-American students in grades 3 to 8 are proficient in English, compared to 9 percent of Latino students and 17 percent of white students. The results are almost identical in math.

But the more sobering picture of what's happening in the Rochester school district can be seen in the test results of individual schools, some of which have been generally considered some of the district's better performers. For instance, only 17 percent of students at School 58 were proficient in English and only 15 percent were proficient in English at School 46.

In addition to the low proficiency rates, relatively few students scored at the top level, what the state would call "high achievers." And the test results show that more than 50 percent of students in both School 58 and School 46 are performing at below or extremely below state standards.

Keeping in mind that the tests are given to elementary and middle school students, the improvement jump they'll need by the time they reach 9th grade is extremely high if they hope to graduate in four years.

And the latest scores fuel speculation that more city schools are in danger of being added to the state's list of receivership schools, those that are risk of being forced to close or reinvent themselves. Test scores are one of the tools State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia uses to gauge whether a school is improving quickly enough.

The picture is different at Fairport's elementary schools, where 37 percent of the students are proficient in English and an additional 17 percent are high performing. It's similar in Honeoye Falls, where 38 percent were proficient and another 22 percent were high performing. Both suburban schools have a predominantly white student body and the poverty rate is low.

The debate continues, however, over how much emphasis parents, teachers, and school administrators should place on high stakes testing. Though fewer students opted out of tests this year, calls to eliminate them continue. After Commissioner Elia touted the benefits of the tests in a recent newspaper letter to the editor, education writer Diane Ravitch railed against them.

"The test scores are released long after the student has left his or her teacher and moved on to a different teacher," Ravitch wrote in her blog. "Most of the questions are released, but the teacher never learns which questions individual students get right or wrong." Since there is no diagnostic or instructional value, Ravitch says, what good are they?