June 24, 2008

Niagara Schools Make the Grade: Pupils in All 10 of the Districts Show Much Improvement in Test Performance

By Paul Westmoore, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Jun. 24--NIAGARA FALLS -- Pupils in all 10 Niagara County public school districts showed much improvement in their performance on this year's state English Language Arts and mathematics assessment tests.

That information was released Monday by State Education Department officials and reflected the general experience of school districts across the state.

Every district in the county saw its pupils improve in both subject areas at almost every level from third to eighth grade. There were some dips, but most of those were marginal.

"Expectations are half the battle, Lockport Superintendent Terry Carbone said. "If you don't expect you can improve, you probably won't."

In the Lockport district, which has a 44 percent poverty rate, pupils showed improvement in every grade in both English and math. The number of seventh-graders passing the ELA test rose from 64 percent last year to 75.6 percent this year, an 11.6 percent hike.

The number of eighth-graders passing the math assessment rose from 65 percent last year to 77.7 percent this year, a 12.7 percent increase.

Some improvements were mar-

Districts have to be careful about concentrating on just one area. At Cheektowaga-Sloan, eighth-grade math scores went up 17 percentage points over three years and fourth-grade ELA went up 19 percentage points. But fourth-grade math and eighth-grade ELA went down slightly.

"We're making an effort there. Obviously we're not making enough of an effort in the other," Superintendent Joseph

P. Mazgajewski said.

He said there is a tendency to focus a little harder on areas needing improvement.

"You need to make sure your curriculum is aligned and make sure everybody is hitting the points," Mazgajewski said. "If you're not consistent or you miss something, then it shows up on the test."

But sometimes it doesn't show up on the test. At Union- Pleasant Elementary School in the Hamburg Central School District, one page of answers from one class was not scanned. The district has notified the state Education Department, said Greg Davis, assistant superintendent for information services.

"They aren't going to fix it until August," he said.

When that happens, there will be many more pupils passing the assessment than the 64.1 percent shown on current results, Davis said.

The increases in scores can be linked to a substantial increase in state funding, $3.4 billion over the past two years, and the development of grade-by- grade curriculums, said Regents Chancellor Robert M. Bennett.

"The heavy lifting is in the classroom. It's what teachers, it's what students supported by their parents, are doing," Mills said. "Youngsters can master this content if they are taught. Apparently they are being taught and taught well."

Bennett said the best practices should be shared from teacher to teacher and school to school.

"If you can do it in this school, why can't you do it in this school? Usually it's the principal," Bennett said.

Mills said there have been small yearly improvements.

"We also see many fewer students performing at the bottom," Mills said.

Gradually the number of pupils scoring the lowest, 1, on the assessment, is decreasing as those "1s" move up to "2s," and those scoring 2 improve to 3, he said.

Those scoring Level 1 show serious academic problems, Level 2 shows pupils partially meet the learning standards, Level 3 shows pupils meet the standards and Level 4 shows they exceed the standards.

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