Scores Plummet; Districts React

Schools see declines on new state tests; Amagansett leads local districts

    Scores on state elementary school tests landed with a thud on the South Fork last week, as they did throughout the region, with teachers and administrations left to  grapple with failure rates that had, in some instances, more than doubled.

    Though the decline had been predicted by the New York State Education Department in the months before the results were released, the impact was unsettling, particularly as a new academic year begins in a few weeks.

    The drop in scores is mostly due to a recent change in curriculum based on a new national set of standards called the Common Core, which is meant to improve critical thinking and problem solving. Students from third through eighth grade in public schools took the tests in the spring. The results were the first assessments of whether the Common Core has taken hold.

    New York is one of 45 states that have adopted the benchmarks, which in English language arts test students on fiction and nonfiction, using not only multiple-choice questions but short essays. Last year, Kentucky was the first state to introduce Common Core-aligned tests. It reported a similar drop in scores.

    Across New York State, only 31 percent of students either met or exceeded proficiency, meaning they received a score of either 3 or 4 on the new exam. In Suffolk County, 33 percent of students passed the math exam, while 36 percent passed the English language arts test. By contrast, last year’s passage rates in Suffolk County were nearly 73 percent in math and 64 percent in English language.

    Locally, Amagansett outperformed its neighboring districts, with 71 percent passage in the third-grade English language arts test and 14 students in the class, for example. Not only are class sizes small in Amagansett — only 14 took the third-grade English test — but it does not have a seventh or eighth grade. Other local schools had better results in some of the upper grades with the Montauk School coming in first in seventh-grade English and math and first and third in those tests in the eighth grade. There were 28 to 30 students in each of these grades.

    The difference in test performance can partly be explained by the small number of students in many East End schools and the divergent demographics. Though in proximity, often separated by only a few miles, student populations vary.

    In Springs only 18 percent of 63 third graders passed the English exam. Of the five students enrolled in third grade in Bridgehampton, 60 percent passed the English test, as did 54 percent of 26 third graders in Montauk. In Sag Harbor, 35 percent of 89 third graders passed the test; in East Hampton it was 31 percent of 93 students tested.

    Among sixth graders, Amagansett again outperformed local districts, with 57 percent passing both English and math. Springs ranked not far behind, with 55 percent passing English and 45 ranked near the middle of the heap, with 44 percent of sixth graders passing the English exam and 38 percent passing math. Only 25 percent of Bridgehampton’s 15 sixth graders passed English and only 24 percent of Sag Harbor’s 83 sixth graders passed the math exam, ranking both schools as the lowest performers in that grade.

    For the 2011-12 year, the East Hampton School District reported an enrollment of 1,841 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade, with an average class size of 21. Nearly a quarter of East Hampton’s students qualified for either a free or reduced-price lunch, in a student body that is 51 percent white and 41 percent Latino.

    The Springs School District reported an enrollment of 650 students — an increase of 47 students since 2009. The average class size was 21. As in East Hampton, nearly a quarter of Springs students qualify for either a free or reduced-price lunch in a student body that is increasingly Latino. White students totaled 45 percent, while Latinos numbered 51 percent.

    The Amagansett School District enrolled 101 students in prekindergarten through sixth grade and reported an average class size of 15 students. None of its students were eligible for reduced-price lunches and its student body was 74 percent white and just 10 percent Latino.

    “One of the many targets of the Common Core is filling those gaps between the different socioeconomic groups,”  Robert Tymann, East Hampton’s assistant superintendent, said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s a huge change and it will take three to five years to properly implement.”

    When examining the results, Mr. Tymann said he looked at regional as well as countywide results. “Everybody went down. Did we go down more or less than the average? We went down less than the average,” he concluded, though he noted the challenge remains for East Hampton to improve its standing while also serving a large population of English language learners.

    Eric Casale, the principal of the Springs School, said some of the differences in performance can be explained by demographics — but not all of it. For many of his students, time proved to be an issue, with some unable to finish the exam.

    “It was a big secret and now that we have an expectation of what the tests are like, we can tailor our program to be a bit more comprehensive,” Mr. Casale said, echoing the Education Department’s view that this year’s results should be viewed as a baseline, rather than  compared to last year’s.

    “It will be interesting to see how schools do next year, now that the baseline has been set,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with ramping up expectations for kids. They will rise to meet that challenge.”

    Although the Amagansett School came out with flying colors, Eleanor Tritt, who has served as the Amagansett School’s superintendent since 2008, questions the necessity and effect of such testing, particularly on the self-esteem of students.

    “We feel this validates our program, but what we’re really concerned about is how the children will react to it,” Ms. Tritt said. “Adults can understand that the state changed the criteria but for children, it’s not that easily comprehendible.”

    She said the increase in high-stakes testing is a great worry. “I don’t think any educator feels that all this testing is good for kids. We really feel it has a negative impact on not only students, but their perceptions,” she said.

    Mark Naison, a 10-year resident of Springs and professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University, is in agreement. He is one of three founders of the Badass Teachers Association, a group dedicated to education reform. Its Facebook page lists nearly 25,000 members.

    He said there had been a precipitous drop among special needs and English language learners. “A lot of people feel that this test is totally inappropriate to give to those categories of students, and is actually humiliating and discouraging to those students. Also, the scores almost precisely correlate along socioeconomic lines.” Mr. Naison said he was concerned by what he described as a “one-size-fits-all” approach to testing, an outcome that easily results in students who are likely to perform poorly on tests being subjected to endless drilling.

     “It makes school hell. All they do is drill,” Mr. Naison said. “It makes teachers’ lives miserable, and it makes children hate school.”

    Earlier this spring, across the city and also on Long Island, thousands of parents banded together and opted out of the state exams, though no local schools did so. Given last week’s results, Mr. Naison predicted the movement will grow.

    “These proficiency scores do not reflect a drop in performance, but rather a raising of standards to reflect college and career readiness in the 21st century,” said John B. King Jr., the New York State Commissioner of Education.

    “I understand these scores are sobering for parents, teachers, and principals. It’s frustrating to see our children struggle. But we can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed by frustration; we must be energized by this opportunity,” Mr. King said.