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Student Pass Rates Plummet as State Raises Test Bar

The New York State Education Department (NYSED) threw a loop into standardized testing on Wednesday, July 28, by dramatically increasing the score  needed to meet math and English language arts (ELA) standards for the 2009-2010 school year. As a result, the percentage of students rated proficient dropped dramatically - in the Mamaroneck School District, in Westchester County and across New York State.

The “cut scores” were raised because of concerns that teacher and student familiarity with the format and content of the tests was leading to better scores each year without a related improvement in the ability of the students to succeed at the high school or college level. (See the announcement from the New York Board of Regents.)

The new pass levels apply to tests administered and graded months ago - so districts have known the scores for each student.  However, they have not known how to interpret these marks. Last year, a student scoring above 650 on a test was considered proficient in a subject. This year, with the new bench marks, the score needed to pass ranged from 662 to 684, depending on the subject and grade level.

With the new grading system coming so late, districts are scrambling to respond and get mandated remedial programs in place for the many students who have suddenly been designated as not proficient in math and/or reading.

On Thursday afternoon, July 29, the Mamaroneck schools issued a brief release indicating the district will be taking a measured approach to the situation and will spend “the next several weeks reviewing the data and developing a plan for meeting and exceeding the new standards.”

According to the release, the district’s newly installed superintendent, Dr. Bob Shaps, who “spent many years as a superintendent in Massachusetts, which has the highest standards relative to any other state, says he understands the Board of Regents’ rationale for increasing proficiency standards.”

“The State modifications are consistent with the district’s initiatives, which aim to offer more rigorous programs and assessments,” said Dr. Shaps. “Our goal should be to strive to do better all of the time and work towards proficiency for all students.  We must not react to this new set of guidelines, but rather review and understand the results so we can address the range of issues/challenges directly impacting our approach to teaching and learning for the next several years.”

What Do the New Cut-Offs Mean For Mamaroneck?

The impact of raising the mark needed to pass can be seen by dipping into a sample of test scores for Mamaroneck available through the NYSED data files. For grade 4, for example, the percentage of students rated proficient was above 85% in the past four years, with a high of 90% last year. As shown in Table 1, with the new cut-off this year, only 80% of fourth graders met the standard - a drop of 10%.

In math, the proficiency rate in Mamaroneck has been over 90%, with a high of 96% last year. This year, only 81% passed the test - a 15 point decrease.

Across Westchester County, the decrease has been even larger than it was in Mamaroneck, widening the gap between local scores and the county average.  From 2006-2009, Mamaroneck fourth graders outperformed the Westchester County average by4-6% in English and 2-8% in math. This year, Mamaroneck surpassed the county average by 13% in English and 9% in math.

2006-2010 Grade 4 Proficiency Rates: Mamaroneck and Westchester County*

Year Mamaroneck
2010 80% (686) 67% 81% (699) 72%
2009 90% (685) 84% 96% (702) 91%
2008 85% (681) 81% 90%(695) 88%
2007 86% (686) 79% 93% (695) 85%
2006 88% (682) 82% 91% (692) 86%

There are similar results found for grade eight (see below). The new benchmarks lowered the pass rates for ELA in Mamaroneck - from 90% last year to 74% this year. Westchester averages showed an equally large drop and are 14 points lower than Mamaroneck’s.

In math, Mamaroneck scores fell from 95% last year to 79% this year. Westchester averages are 17 points lower.

2006-2010 Grade 8 Test Scores: Mamaroneck and Westchester County*

Year Mamaroneck
2010 74% (677) 60% 79% (695) 62%
2009 90% (679) 76% 95% (700) 83%
2008 79% (677) 67% 91%(684) 76%
2007 84% (681) 67% 84% (681) 68%
2006 76% (676) 62% 80% (683) 66%

In addition to the percentage of students rated proficient, NYSED reports on the average test score. A look at those scores (in parentheses in Tables 1 and 2) shows that they haven’t changed much over the past five years. The score went up or down a few points each year except in grade 8 math, where there was  a 16 point increase from 2008 to 2009.

So what’s a Mamaroneck parent or taxpayer to think? Obviously, local schools have not suddenly deteriorated since last year. Test scores, as opposed to proficiency percentages, have not changed much. On the other hand, NYSED is suggesting that the schools are not doing as well as recent test scores might have led everyone to believe.

*Charts are based on NYSED data as compiled by the Journal News.

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7 comments to Student Pass Rates Plummet as State Raises Test Bar

  • Concerned Parent

    As stated, test scores dropped across all of Westchester, however an article in points out that: “The changes were even more dramatic for black and Hispanic students, children with disabilities, students in high-poverty districts and those whose first language is not English.”
    Looking at the individual test scores for the schools in the Mamaroneck School District (page 1570 of this document from NYSED: ) this appears to be true, with the schools with higher percentages of students “at-risk” performing more poorly than the schools with lower percentages of these students. However, the extremely poor performance of Central School vs. the rest of the district, even with its large population of children with Special Education needs, is worrisome and should be discussed in greater detail by the district. (Recent statistics ( report that Central is 30% non-white with 8% of the population eligible for free and reduced lunch vs. 57% non-white at Mamk Ave with 28% eligible, vs. 7% non-white at Murray Ave and 0% eligible.) The individual performances are as follows:

    Central Mmk Ave Chats Murray JFK

    3 ela 64.2 62.5 82.5 80.1 69.4
    3 math 71.4 65.9 85.4 87.5 77.2
    4 ela 77.5 72.7 80.8 87 59.7
    4 math 68.9 76.7 86.3 88.8 84.9
    5 ela 65.8 47.9 88.7 79.3 47.4
    5 math 60.8 64.2 87.2 89.1 73.3

    Although our district has been very dedicated to raising the performance of our most at-risk students and has spent enormous amounts of money to address the minority gap, it seems that we are failing to do so, thereby failing our most needy students, and possibly negatively impacting all of our students. Given our dedication to the “differentiation” model, it seems that the entire district struggles in later years as we attempt to educate our most at-risk students alongside all other students in ever larger classes (classes at HMX are expected to have 27-30 students next year.) The at-risk students then fall farther behind while the other students are held back from reaching their highest potential. As the district seems committed to an integrated model, more must be done to help our most struggling students in the earliest years. What to do?

    Fortunately, there is a local success story that may offer some insight. Our educators and Board of Ed should meet with the officials at John F. Kennedy Magnet School in Port Chester. In a school that is 93% non-white, with 71% of the population eligible for free and reduced lunch, they reported test scores that (with the exception of their 4th grade ela) far exceed the scores at Mamaroneck Avenue school, and (with the exception of 4th and 5th grade ela) far exceed the scores at Central School.

    Dr. Shaps committed to spending “the next several weeks reviewing the data and developing a plan for meeting and exceeding the new standards.” That time may be better spent if we admit that our experiment at Mamaroneck. Avenue School isn’t working as planned and that the performance at Central School can no longer be overlooked. Something is going right at JFK Magnet. We should reach out and see what can be learned from their system, rather than trying to once again recreate the wheel. The Mamaroneck School District needs to do more to create an educational parity between each of their elementary schools;this is as good a time as any to begin.

  • David A. Singer

    Here’s my take on what the Regents and State Ed department has wrought:

    New York State School Leadership Fiasco: The Illusion of Rigor:

  • concerned parent

    Mr. Singer is correct, the absolute test scores have come to mean less and less. However, the growing disparity of test scores between our grade schools is meaningful and should not be overlooked.

  • ITK

    The administration at Central School has shed light on more than one occasion (in an open forum) how to interprete the test scores in a way that takes the school population into account. If you have questions, I suggest that you contact them so you too will be more educated on the topic. We live in a diverse community and based on that fact in addition to the district decision to shift the majority of students with special education needs to Central School, has to be considered. All things are not equal and to compare our four elementary schools as if they are the same is mistake number one in reading too much into test scores.

  • Gulliver

    American public schools will never be able to compete in the global academic race in the long run. The system simply is destined for failure and had never really worked. It only caters to the very high achieving students and the very poor achievers.

    The middle of the road students make up the majority of the students across America and they are continually overlooked and forgotten. Until the school systems start looking at mediocrity as the place to start the improvement projects, i.e. focusing their efforts on improving the middle of the road students, the pendulum towards excellence is not going to move much if at all and the results will continue to be abysmal. Mamaroneck Public Schools are the perfect example of this obvious disparity and oversight.

    Look at it in simplistic terms; the average joe performing students are the easiest to move forward to improvement because they are usually intelligent but lacking in motivation or drive. Now, if the schools can focus on this group, to build upon their academic development, then the test scores will make dramatic improvements on a percentage basis since this is the largest group of all.

    There has always been plenty of money going to gifted and high achieving students along with special education students - so now is the time to finally focus on the middle of the road performers & to lift them up to their fullest potentials; thus creating the greatest gains in overall performance. It’s a recipe for success.

  • concerned parent

    Diversity should not be a magic cloak to hide behind when explaining test scores. Our district outspends JFK Magnet (a grade school in Portchester that is 51% limited English and 71% free or reduced lunch) by $3000/student/year (over $6mm more in our grade schools alone). Yet our far-less-diverse grade schools are not performing on par with this school. My previous comments discuss the diversity at the schools and ask that the district try another approach. Limited English and “living at the poverty line” are challenges to overcome, but they do not equal “uneducatable” - our district can do better and it is appropriate to request that it does.

    Special Education is an added factor at Central School. However, it is unlikely that the presence of the SE population accounts for all of the discrepancy in the scores. During the last year, the population at that school has asked the administration to make available a breakdown of the scores on a public link from their website. That would help clarify how the school is faring educating both SE and Non SE students.

  • MAS parent

    I am impressed with the thoughtful dialogue regarding the test scores, and yet, I am not sure what to make of them. As a MAS parent, I have been more than satisfied with my children’s progress at the school. They have become proficient and enthusiastic readers and mathematicians (for their ages). I personally do not worry too much about test scores. I think it’s more important for children to enjoy learning and to come home curious and interested in learning and MAS seems to do a good job at that. As far as I can tell, all the children feel that they are making progress and are encouraged to continue learning.

    Having said that, it is distressing that our Hispanic students are not achieving at the same level as our white students. Language may be a barrier. It would be interesting to know how JFK deals with the ELL population. There may be a different modality that would benefit our kids. I have always felt that MAS does not take advantage of the potential benefit of having a large body of Spanish language speakers in the school. A dual language program where half the students are learning Spanish and half are learning English would be a model to look into because it promotes true bilingualism in academic and social language.

    In addition to test scores, I would be curious to know graduation rates for Mamaroneck students, and to compare the rates for Hispanics vs. whites, and for graduates of the different elementary schools. In the end, we want a school district that can graduate students - what they scored on a test in 4th grade is not relevant if ultimately they earn a diploma.

  • For Education

    I am a Central Parent, and I am very concerned with the test scores for our school. I understand that we are the only integrated school in our district, but what effect does this have on the overall school performance. To me it doesn’t seem to be very positive. Yes, in the long run no one will care about the 3rd and 4th grade test scores, and everyone will end up at HMX MS and MAM HS, but in the meantime, Central will not attract the kind of students/parents that want their kids to excel. If someone is choosing a school in Larchmont for their kids, why would they choose the one where the scores are so dramatically lower then the rest?