School Test Scores Took a Plunge

October 19, 2006

The results from last year's New York State English language arts and mathematics exams have finally been posted, reflecting an overall decline in scores from third to eighth grades across the state.

This is the first time the tests have been given to third through eighth graders. From 1999 to 2005, there were only two comprehensive exams for fourth and eighth grade. While the English language arts exam results were posted on Sept. 21, the math results did not come out until Oct. 11.

South Fork school officials have criticized the State Education Department for not returning the scores, which were promised last spring, in a timely manner, and some were angered that the English language arts exam results were published in Newsday before school administrators had time to review them.

"We have not received everything we were supposed to receive from the state," said Thomas Quinn, the Springs superintendent, before that district's school board reviewed the test data at a meeting on Monday.

"With the exception of fourth grade, we have increased our scores dramatically. We have made huge jumps in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades," said Eric Casale, the principal of the Springs School, as he gave a PowerPoint presentation of test data at the meeting.

At the Springs School, new testing strategies have already been put into place, such as administering "mock English language arts exams" to second graders that model the third-grade exam. Mr. Casale said he was pleased with the scores. "There's a sense of pride that has gone into this," he said. "What you see here is just a snapshot of what goes on every day."

The new tests have presented multiple challenges for schools. Not only are more students being tested, but the math exams are more difficult than in years past.

"It is not possible to make direct comparisons between the 1999-2005 math results in grades four and eight and the 2006 math results in grades four and eight because New York State's math standards have been raised," said an Oct. 11 press release from the New York State Board of Regents.

Still, Richard Mills, the state education commissioner, noted that ". . . these results show substantially lower achievement from the fifth to the eighth grade."

A similar decline was reflected in English scores. However, Mr. Quinn said that "the test was significantly different," going on to explain that the test given to fourth graders between 1999 and 2005 was a comprehensive exam that covered information learned in first through fourth grade. The new tests, he argued, are more difficult.

School administrators in Bridgehampton, one of the districts hardest by low test scores, were at a loss to explain the reason for the decline in the middle school grades. Only 27.3 percent of the district's eighth graders received a passing grade of a three or a four in the English language arts exam, and 14.3 percent passed in math.

The tests are measured on a scale of one to four, with level four students "exceeding" the standards and level three "meeting" the standards. Level two students meet "some, but not all the standards," and level one students "show serious academic problems."

In Bridgehampton, 18.2 percent of eighth graders scored a level one on the English language arts exam, and 21.4 percent scored a one in math.

The school's superintendent, Dianne Youngblood, said at a school board meeting on Oct. 10 that a meeting would be scheduled the following morning, where the school's reading teachers, coaches, and English team would be "looking at the data, and making sure the strategies we have put in place this year are indeed appropriate."

In smaller districts, the number of students taking the test can severely affect the scores. Last year, only 11 eighth-grade students took the English language arts exam in Bridgehampton.

Timothy Bryden, a coordinator for Project MOST, an after-school program in East Hampton and Springs, said that family difficulties should not be ignored as a factor contributing to test scores. "Keep the individual circumstances of each one of those children in mind," he said.

As for the reason for the decline in the higher grades, teachers and administrators across the state are grasping for answers. Mr. Casale attributed at least some of the lowered test scores to the development that occurs at middle-school age. "Honestly, I think a lot of it has to do with students finding out who they are, socially," he said.