EDUCATION: Test scores: worse than you think


Some city students, like these seventh graders at School 28, attend summer classes to sharpen their math skills. PHOTO BY MATT DETURCK

The abysmal performance of city students on state exams taken last April didn’t surprise anyone. That alone makes a statement. But Superintendent Bolgen Vargas says higher state standards are at least partly to blame for the lower scores.

The recently released scores in English language arts and math for grades 3 to 8 showed that only 20 percent of Rochester’s students met grade-level standards in English and reading. And less than 30 percent were proficient in math.

What’s worse: nobody seems to know why city students’ academic performance isn’t improving or what to do about it.

It’s not as if school district and city officials haven’t tried. Over the last 30 years, schools have been opened and closed, large schools broken up into smaller schools, millions invested in sophisticated technology to track student performance, legislation passed to help rid Rochester’s homes and apartments of lead and its brain-damaging effects on children. Even the state has stepped-up pressure on teachers and principals; new evaluations are intended to increase accountability in the profession.

But if any of this has had a positive impact on student achievement, there’s scant evidence of it. No matter where you stand on standardized tests, it’s impossible not to see that thousands of Rochester’s students are on a frightening trajectory to failure.

Research shows that students who aren’t reading at grade level by the third grade have a high risk of not graduating, Vargas says. That means out of the 2,359 third graders who took the most recent ELA test, as many as 50 percent could drop out or take 14 to 15 years to complete high school.

And even if they graduate on time, there’s little evidence they will be prepared to enter college or the work force.

In comparison, 67 percent of third graders in the Penfield Central School District were reading at grade level when the last ELA was given. Fifteen percent were reading above the third-grade standard.

The same is true for their math scores. About 57 percent performed at grade level, and 33 percent performed above grade level.

The picture does not improve for students in Rochester’s middle grades. For example, out of the 2,131 seventh graders who took the ELA test, barely 16 percent were reading and performing at grade level. It seems that the obstacles hindering students in the lower grades have almost ossified by middle school.

It’s not difficult to predict what will happen to these students in high school; the majority will be too far behind to catch up.

The district’s most recent attempt to address low student performance — phasing out low performing schools and opening new schools — doesn’t look promising. Despite the fanfare about creating a portfolio of more rigorous schools, many of the district’s newly opened schools are on the same pathway as the failing schools they replaced.

At Northwest College Prep High School, for example, only 11 percent of seventh-grade students performed at grade level on the ELA. About 16 percent met proficiency standards in math.

Superintendent Vargas says that improving student achievement will require systemic changes in the district. And he has reframed the argument in a way that doesn’t allow the discussion to become bogged down in a debate about poverty and its influence on student achievement.

In 2009, 56 percent of city students in grades 3 to 8 were reading at grade level, he says. But then the state introduced higher standards.

“A lot of people assumed that our students’ performance declined,” Vargas says. “But that’s not true.”

He says students need more academic and social-emotional support to meet those higher standards, including longer school days. He says it’s a cost-effective investment to break the cycle of low achievement.

“Prevention is timely,” Vargas says. “It’s much harder and costs more to intervene, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”



  1. All the money in the world invested in schools and teachers will not improve learning or test scores until PARENTS take an active roll in supporting and encouraging their children to value education and to do well in school. Some of the most impovershed countries do more to push out educated children than does the USA. This problem will continue to plague the country until an economic crisis forces people to become responsible for their own destiny and that of future generations.

  2. Dear Cindy,

    Say what you will, but money does matter, especially when considering the massive, pervasive, profound, deep-seated, devastating issues and problems that more and more of our (URBAN or CITY) students bring with them to school. It is important however for the money to be targeted (with laser-like precision) toward programs and initiatives that WILL work, which obviously is not the case currently, and hasn’t been the case for decades, if not centuries.

    The very, very old blame-the parents-exclusively game is just that — very, very old, and very, very tired. If we sit around like bumps on a log and wait until ALL parents “take an active roll in supporting and encouraging their children to value education and to do well in school” — we’ll be sitting and waiting for a very long time, and more and more children will continue to drop out, flunk-out, die-out and/or serve as the fodder for the very real school-to-prison-pipeline, and the ever-growing prison/industrial complex. WE CAN’T WAIT. I’m not letting parents off the hook or excusing them from their responsibility, but I am a realist, and the reality is that (no matter how bad it needs to happen) all of the TALK in the world will NOT, can NOT produce instant, total, parent accountability. Thus, there is a need for a massive, ongoing, coordinated effort to WORK with huge numbers of parents consistently — in a process of HELPING and SUPPORTING them — as they LEARN to HELP and SUPPORT their children. THE FOCUS MUST REMAIN ON THE CHILDREN.

    Additionally, it’s very important to remember and/or understand that the State Constitution does NOT say that the State is responsible for providing a sound basic education (only if parents “take an active roll in supporting and encouraging their children to value education and to do well in school”). Nope, the State Constitution says that the State is responsible for providing ALL children within its jurisdiction with a sound, basic education — period (no caveats, no qualifiers). Thus, in this particular case — this means that the Rochester Board of Education, the highly-paid Superintendent of Rochester Schools, the slew of highly-paid Rochester City School District Central Office administrators, highly-paid building-level administrators, less highly-paid, but not lowest paid teachers and building-level support staff — whom collectively represent a fiduciary of the State — ARE responsible for providing ALL children of the Rochester City School District with a sound basic education — whether their parents “take an active roll in supporting and encouraging their children to value education and to do well in school” or NOT. Again, the bottom line IS that THE FOCUS MUST REMAIN ON THE CHILDREN — PERIOD.

    Howard J. Eagle

  3. John Patton Jr · · Reply

    Maybe if schools had to compete for students and funding, teachers will be more active in making sure they’re schools stay open so they can keep they’re job. I don’t care who gets rich off educating our kids as long as they do it. All this money and they can’t read, what?!

    If teachers need overtime, PAY THEM! If they need less mandates from the state, remove them. But if they don’t produce fire them!

    Oh yeah and hiring more teachers from Rochester or mandating they live in the city to remain tenured isn’t a bad idea either. Maybe if they were around “poor” kids more often and understood their environment, they would understand how to set the standard in the classroom.

    1. You’ve heard the saying, some seeds fall on rock and will not prosper, other seeds fall on soil and are nurtured. The child who’s parents send them to school hungry and tired because the parents were up partying all night may never learn even if the teacher is paid a million dollars and is a graduate from the finest university.

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