Local school administrators were given another piece of the education puzzle when grades 3-8 English language arts and math assessment results were released Thursday.
And although state Education Department indicators say that only a relatively small percentage of Chautauqua County's eighth-graders are on track to be prepared for college when they graduate, school superintendents say it is much too early to jump to that conclusion.
"Test data helps leaders and helps them guide learning for everybody in the system," said Tim Mains, Jamestown Public Schools superintendent. "Ultimately the value in the data is how it will guide us and inform us to adjust what we do in the coming year to respond to the trends we see in the test data."
Throughout Chautauqua County as a whole, third-grade math students were closest to being on the right track toward graduation as 37 percent were rated proficient while just 22 percent of fifth-grade English students rated proficient on their exams.
"What makes this difficult is making one of the biggest changes and pushes in education history at a time period when we have had the greatest reductions in state aid in history," said Stephen Penhollow, Falconer Central School superintendent. "We are very fortunate that our people have stepped up and taken on the new challenges. In the past four years, Falconer has lost $36 million in state aid and the gap elimination adjustment. That's just Falconer. Every school in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties is facing similar numbers."
Since the 2009-10 school year, the state has deducted from each school district's state aid allocation an amount now known as the gap elimination adjustment to help the state fill its revenue shortfall.
Editor's note: This article spotlights four districts in Chautauqua County whose superintendents were contacted Friday to reflect on grades 3-8 English language arts and mathematics assessment scores that were released Thursday by the state Education Department. For complete scores for every district in Chautauqua County and four additional districts in bordering Cattaraugus County, view pages F7 and F8 of this edition.
JAMESTOWN PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Jamestown, which has the benefit - or detriment - of having data from five elementary schools and three middle schools, showed its greatest improvement in third-grade math with 27 percent of the 365 math students tested being deemed proficient. That is a 13 percent gain over last year's third-graders. Conversely, just 16 percent of the 407 English language arts students tested were deemed proficient, a 3 percent decrease from last year's fifth-graders.
"I discourage people from comparing themselves to one another, not only school to school, but class to class," Mains said. "This is not about feeling good or feeling bad, it's about 'how can I use this information to do a better job next year versus last year?'"
Generally, third- and fourth-graders across the district scored better on this past spring's math test than those in 2013. The highest percentage of students being deemed proficient on the exams in the elementary schools came from C.C. Ring's third-graders with 38 percent of the 79 tested scoring a Level 3 or Level 4. In fourth grade, 41 percent of Bush's 56 students tested were deemed proficient. At the opposite end of the spectrum, 85 percent of Fletcher's 99 third-graders tested scored a Level 1 or Level 2 while 15 percent of Lincoln's fourth-graders scored did not reach proficiency.
"More important than knowing an entire school or district is being able to have access to individual student scores," Mains said. "I want the individual responses to each question. If we see a whole bunch of third-graders didn't do well relating to adding three-digit numbers, we can find the questions that dealt with that and break them down to give the staff a deeper understanding about what kind of thinking needs to go on to do well with that question."
In the JPS middle schools, Persell had the highest percentage of seventh-graders score at a proficient level on the math exam with 35 percent while 12 percent of Washington's sixth-graders were deemed proficient - meaning 88 percent were not on track in mathematics, according to the evaluations. In ELA, 30 percent of Persell's 112 eighth-graders and 30 percent of Washington's 130 eighth-graders were deemed proficient, while 96 percent of Washington's 127 sixth-graders scored a Level 1 or Level 2.
"I'm able to give teachers specific info about how students in their class this year performed on tests last year," Mains said. "If one kid is having this problem and another kid is having a different problem, we can eventually individualize intervention and support for kids just in what they need help in."
At Falconer, where scores increased across the board, Penhollow credited the students and staff for the positive results that came from the second year of Common Core-aligned tests.
"Every time you make a big shift like this, it is a learning curve," Penhollow said. "I think our staff is much more prepared and far more comfortable after having a chance to work through the modules and adapt them to good forms of instruction."
All six of Falconer's grade levels showed increases in the number of children being considered proficient in math and ELA. The fifth grade showed a 17 percent increase in the number of children scoring a Level 3 or Level 4 on the math exam while the fourth grade experienced a 16 percent increase in math scores. In ELA, the fifth grade showed a 10 percent increase in the number of students considered proficient.
"One of our new programs, iReady, allows kids to work at their own competitive level with teacher supervision," Penhollow said. "We still do a lot of supplementing in addition to iReady. Our teachers are the greatest asset in the classroom."
Maureen Donahue, Southwestern Central School superintendent, was pleased with her district's results, noting overall growth in 11 of the 12 areas, including increases in the number of students considered proficient in eight of 12 grade levels.
"We take a look at our strengths and see what we need to differently," Donahue said. "One of my main things is to look at our own individual successes compared to another school's."
Southwestern's third-graders, in their first year being tested with the state assessments, saw 19 percent more students score at a proficient level this year than last year while 23 percent more of its seventh-graders also scored at a proficient level. In ELA, Southwestern's fourth-graders saw the biggest jump with 12 percent more of the 94 students tested achieving a proficient score.
Twenty-eight percent more of Frewsburg's third-graders scored at a proficient level this year compared to last year but Danielle O'Connor, superintendent, expressed caution when looking at a single grade level's scores, especially third-graders being assessed for the first time.
"As an administrative team we will look closely at our strengths and weaknesses through the assessment process, but it is just one moment in time and not the total picture of achievement for our children," O'Connor said. "While we are always conscientious of the backgrounds of our children, we also know that every child is capable of learning. It is up to us to find the most effective methods to keep them learning and achieving."
Frewsburg's second-biggest increase in the number of students being deemed proficient was in sixth-grade math and O'Connor pointed to that data as another way to use the assessments.
"A teacher was originally certified in grades 7-12 math out of college, but ended up in elementary," O'Connor said. "We can use this to match teachers with their strengths. Knowing she has the depth of knowledge in the area of mathematics, we appreciated her expertise and placed her in a classroom where a good part of her day is teaching math. We are utilizing our resources to the fullest extent that we can."
One area where scores decreased fairly consistently was in eighth-grade math. Frewsburg saw a 20 percent decrease in the number of students deemed proficient, Bemus Point decreased 8 percent and Jamestown Public Schools decreased 7 percent. Several superintendents noted the reason for that and were not alarmed.
"Students in advanced eighth-grade math took ninth-grade integrated algebra. That took the highest-performing population of math students and removed them from the eighth-grade assessment," O'Connor said. "The assessment is only one piece and making kids take two assessments just for the benefit of looking better wasn't going to happen. Double testing them wasn't in their best interest."
Administrators cautioned that this was just the second year that Common Core-aligned assessments were used and the value lies in how the data is used, not just what the data is.
"Like anything else, the scores are just a one-year snapshot," Penhollow said. "You have to look at the year previous and make the right instructional decision. It is a challenge for every district to meet these goals."
Most superintendents agreed that the quality of their teachers will show in the results, but they can't be used to solely evaluate the staff.
"We have not approached using test data as a basis for making staff decisions," Mains said. "This is only the second year. Making staffing interventions on a single year would be a poor way to make decisions."
And despite the fact that much of the data shows a majority of Chautauqua County's students are not necessarily on the right track to graduate with the proper ELA and math preparation, Penhollow believes that his school's Class of 2014 can argue the opposite.
"Forty-four of 94 kids had a semester of college finished when they graduated high school," he said. "Our parents and community come to expect that.
"We push our kids in small county schools ... to do great things."
* Although Level 4 is the highest achievable score on assessment exams, any student scoring a Level 3 or Level 4 is deemed proficient in the subject matter. Eighth-grade math results were not factored in when dictating which grade level and subject level scored the best or worst in each of the profiled districts because many students were exempt from that specific exam.