Higher test standards tank scores

English and math test scores throughout the state plummeted for grades 3-8 after New York changed its proficiency standards this summer. In Riverhead schools some test results saw passing grades drop by more than 30 percent.

Lois Etzel, the Riverhead School District’s new assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, likened it to “moving the goal post after the ball was kicked.”

The state education department this year raised the bar for what constitutes a passing grade on the standardized math and English Language Arts tests that students in grades 3 to 8 must take. As a result, Riverhead and just about every other district in the state have seen their test scores plummet.

“Nobody knew they were going to do this,” Dr. Etzel said.

Statewide, the percentage of third- through eighth-grade students meeting proficiency standards on English tests dropped from 77 percent in 2009 to 53 percent in 2010. In math, the passing percentage fell from 85 percent in 2009 to 61 percent in 2010, according to state figures.

The state education department said cutoff scores for the tests “were set according to new proficiency standards redefined to align them with college-ready performance” and are based on a review of research that analyzed how the grade 3-8 tests relate to the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams, the Regents exams, SAT scores and how students perform in their first year of college.

“We are doing a great disservice when we say that a child is proficient when that child is not,” Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in a statement, asserting that students who are most in need of help are the ones who suffer most when that occurs.

“We are finally providing an honest answer … to the question ‘How are our students doing?’â” Ms. Tisch said during a conference call with reporters last week.

State education commissioner David Steiner said the U.S. has “stagnated” when it comes to education. He cited research showing that the number of U.S. students graduating from college has decreased dramatically in the past 15 years.

The change comes just as test scores in math and English had been improving in recent years in the Riverhead school district.

But not this year.

For Riverhead, the percentage of students meeting proficiency in the English tests dropped from 77.4 to 56.4 in third grade; from 87.5 to 56.4 in fourth grade; from 83.3 to 53.6 in fifth grade; from 87.8 to 51.8 in sixth grade; from 73.6 to 45.3. in seventh grade; and from 65.4 to 52.3 in eighth grade.

In math, that percentage dropped from 93.4 to 60.7 in third grade; from 89.5 to 54.3 in fourth grade; from 87.2 to 68 in fifth grade; from 85.9 to 65.1 in sixth grade; from 93.6 to 79.9 in seventh grade; and from 83.7 to 58.3 in eighth grade.

Since the passing grade is different for every test, it’s not easy to figure out how the district would have done using the old parameters, Dr. Etzel said. But the state has allowed school districts to use the old standards when determining which students will need remedial help, she said.

Given the latest results, the number of children in need of remedial help would have risen drastically — possibly to a degree not budgeted for — had the state not allowed educators to use the old standards, officials said.

“But we still have to figure out how to help the kids that didn’t make the cut, because that will be the standard in the future,” Dr. Etzel said.

“The education community is not complaining about the change, just the timeliness of it. Nobody knew it was coming and it happened after the school year,” she said.

The change also comes after school budgets have been adopted. In addition, since the state did not adopt its budget, which was due in April, until Tuesday night, leaving school districts uncertain of how much state aid they will receive for the 2010-11 year.

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