School test scores drop sharply

Superintendent Johnson, a critic of new state exams, insists they ‘do not matter’


By Alex Costello

New York state released the results of its new tests last week and, as expected, scores for students all over the state, including Rockville Centre, dropped dramatically.

Last year, an average of about 81 percent of Rockville Centre students passed the state exams, which are given in grades 3 through 8 in English Language Arts and math. This year, with the new tests the state gave, the passing rate in Rockville Centre plummeted to 48 percent. The state average was slightly over 30 percent.

“Our conclusion, after reviewing this with my staff in the central office and talking to a number of colleagues, is that we’re just going to put it on a shelf someplace and just leave it there,” said Dr. William Johnson, the district superintendent. “We’re not going to use this information to make any kind of determination about what kind of services we need for children, and we’re not going to use it in any capacity whatsoever to make informed decisions about our staff.”

The drop in scores came because more rigorous standards were used on the exams. They were the first to be given since the state shifted its curriculum to the Common Core Learning Standards, which are intended to more fully prepare students for college and careers.

“These proficiency scores do not reflect a drop in performance, but rather a raising of standards to reflect college and career readiness in the 21st century,” State Education Commissioner John King Jr. said in a release. “I understand these scores are sobering for parents, teachers, and principals. It’s frustrating to see our children struggle. But we can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed by frustration; we must be energized by this opportunity. The results we’ve announced today are not a critique of past efforts; they’re a new starting point on a roadmap to future success.”

Johnson said he was disappointed not with the scores or with students’ performance, but with the state for giving the tests in the first place. The tests are used by many districts to determine which children need extra help, and in which subjects, but the Rockville Centre district uses different measures. Under new state teacher review guidelines known as APPR, the scores will also be used to assess teachers.

According to Johnson, however, King sent an email last week to all of the state’s superintendents, telling them not to use the scores for anything. “It should not be incorporated into APPR, nor should it be used to inform decisions about whether teachers should or should not be here next year, or should or should not get teacher improvement plans,” Johnson said. “So we’re living right now through a time that I can only describe as a theater of the absurd.”

He has been a vocal opponent of the tests since they were administered in April, believing that they did not properly assess what children had learned. “Never at the end of the day could you, as a result of what you saw with a child’s actual performance on these tests, know what they know and what they don’t know,” Johnson said in April.

The data that the tests provided the district, Johnson said, is “uninterpretable and unusable.” He gave an example: in eighth grade, Rockville Centre students take the algebra Regents exam, which is usually administered in ninth grade. This year, about 95 percent of students passed it. The eighth-grade state math exam is supposed to determine how prepared students are to take algebra, yet only 39.5 percent of them passed that exam.

“To hell with these scores,” Johnson said. “They do not matter. They’re not informing us in any way; they’re not giving us any new information. In fact, what they’re doing is serious damage. Kids who had a [Level] 3 last year and ended up with a [Level] 1 this year, how do I tell them they can’t read, when in fact we know they can?”

A relatively large number of parents in the district did not allow their children to take the tests. More than 309 students — about 20 percent — “opted out.” Johnson said that it was the highest number in the state, but he was unsure how that affected the district’s scores overall. Because the results have no bearing, however, there are no repercussion for the students who did not sit for the exams, or their teachers.

“It’s really somewhat tragic, but I don’t know how to phrase this except that those parents that opted out can easily turn to their neighbors and say, ‘I told you so,’” Johnson said. “So the fact is that these kids sat for between four and five hours — and in some cases more than that — of testing, only to have the results when they come back to us be either uninterpretable or unusable.”