EDITORIAL: Our proficiency deficit

NUMBERS TELL STORIES but only to those who know the secrets of counting. Fortune cookie wisdom? No. It’s an observation on the latest data dump from the New York State Education Department.

Late last week the Education Department released a report with the catchy title “Spring 2019 Grades 3-8 ELA & Math Assessment Results.” These are results from what used to be called high stakes tests for elementary and junior high students. They were introduced to comply with federal mandates that gave large federal grants to states that measured student achievement.

The state and school districts have been collecting data for years and posting it online as part of each district’s annual “report card.” But the English language arts (ELA) and math tests are different because they are supposed to reveal how well the state as a whole and its individual districts are preparing some of our youngest learners. It all boiled down to a binary conclusion: Are the kids in 3rd through 8th grades proficient in English and math—Yes or No?

This is education in the 21st century, so imagine how valuable it is to have yes/no answers connected with children identified by grade, gender, minority status, school-wide needs and high-fructose corn syrup snack choices (one of these was a test to see whether you’re still awake). This data can numb the senses or, ideally, it can guide the state and local officials toward more effective ways to educate children.

For all the effort and expense that goes into administering these tests and processing the data, the most obvious conclusion is that it’s not easy to make big changes in a huge enterprise like public education in the State of New York. Nearly a million students took the tests this year. Fewer than half of them are rated proficient in English and math. And where there was improvement, often it was slight.

Kids here must be doing better than that, right? Guess again. Overall in the county, students are well below the state average in both English and math, with girls doing better than boys. Individual school results vary but the trends appear follow the statewide pattern.

Maybe kids today aren’t as smart as we think, as if any parent or grandparent would believe that. Teachers work hard. We could blame society or social media, but that echoes the bogus claims of previous generations, when parents were told comic books rotted our young brains. That leaves us with the possibility that how we measure the proficiency of today’s kids doesn’t account for how early grade learners absorb and process information. Maybe the test makers aren’t as smart as the test takers.

We don’t need a whole new testing regime. The data gathered each year in a similar fashion could turn out to be a powerful tool to help improve learning and make sure kids are no longer deprived of the full benefits of a public education because of race, disability or income. At the same time, voters have a duty to demand that the legislature and the Board of Regents continually reassess the tests. The public needs factual reassurance that the time our kids spend taking tests will not increase but the benefits to student test-takers will.

With a little patience people can view the proficiency scores at the website listed below. You can check your school district and compare it with others both in the county and around the state. For each school district, the colorful format is the same, which helps when making those comparisons. But there is one graph that’s quite different.

It’s at the bottom of the Power Point presentation of the report headed, “2019 Test Refusal Students by Need/Resource Group.” Refusal students are the kids whose parents refuse to allow them to take the proficiency tests. The state says the rate of refusal is on a downward trend. That’s true as far as it goes; there was a drop of a percent or two in refusers each of the last two years. But it’s still a firmly entrenched resistance movement in the public education system. What’s more, the state says, “Of the total test refusals statewide, the most are from average and low need districts.”

The state also has data showing that in this county, the poorest children are the ones most likely to avoid the test. Who knows whether that will affect their education? But clearly it masks an even greater proficiency deficit than the figures show and we have no idea what the state plans to do about it.


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