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Published in Print: June 2, 1999, as Poor Districts Fare Worst on N.Y. Assessment

Poor Districts Fare Worst on N.Y. Assessment

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Fewer than half of New York state's 4th graders made the grade on a new literacy test administered in January, state officials announced last week.

Taken as a whole, 48 percent of roughly 210,000 test-takers met the state's competency standards on the reading and writing exam, which is part of a broader campaign by state officials to ratchet up academic requirements from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Predictably, results on the new English/Language Arts Performance Assessment were far stronger in middle-class and affluent suburban communities than in urban and rural areas with high poverty levels.

In New York City, which enrolls more than a third of the state's public school students, just 33 percent of the roughly 75,000 test-takers there met the standards. That compares with 72 percent in the group of relatively wealthy districts that the state classifies as "low needs."

Richard P. Mills, the state education commissioner, expressed no surprise at the lackluster results. The test "challenges students to read and write at a high level," he said.

Around the country, states have been hit by similarly weak first-year scores as they institute more rigorous assessments linked to revamped standards. The results often come as a shock to schools and the public, even though education leaders seek to dampen expectations beforehand by stressing that the initial scores should be seen as starting points for improvement. ("Panel To Probe Validity of N.Y. Reading Test," Feb. 3, 1999.)

"Our attitude now is all-important: We can and will improve student achievement," Mr. Mills said in a statement. "There is no substitute and no shortcut for us: All students need to be reading 25 books a year and writing 1,000 words a month."

Calls for More Aid

The first-year test results come as state lawmakers and Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, remain sharply divided over education aid for the state fiscal year that started April 1. With that statutory deadline for forging a new budget long since past, the Democratic-controlled Assembly, the GOP-dominated Senate, and the governor all remain far apart in the amount of extra funding they want to send schools.

Educators and interest groups, already in the midst of concerted lobbying efforts in the state capital, seized on the results to reiterate their calls for more money to help schools cope with the tougher standards.

"We're not going to meet this challenge without extra resources," said Linda A. Rosenblatt, a spokeswoman for New York State United Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "We're not panicked, but we're realistic."

Randi Weingarten, the president of the union's New York City affiliate, sounded a similar theme. She called for "money to reduce class size, to provide high-quality professional development, to extend both instructional and staff-development time when needed, [and] to provide the facilities, technology, and materials that are needed."

Rudolph F. Crew, the schools chief in New York City, decried what he called "the historic inequity in state-aid funding for our youngsters."

Mr. Mills, meanwhile, said the results underscored the importance of targeting more aid to needy urban and rural communities. "We must close the performance gap," he said.

The state divided the scores into four achievement levels, with Level 1 indicating that students have "serious academic deficiencies" and Level 4 showing that they "demonstrate superior knowledge and skill." Only those in Levels 3 and 4 are considered to have met the state standards.

Statewide, just 5 percent of students scored in the top level, while 11 percent fell into the bottom category. The remaining 84 percent were almost evenly divided between the middle two levels.

In New York City, Mr. Crew said, the schoolchildren "held their own" against those in the state's next four largest cities: Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers. Just 28 percent of test-takers in those four cities met the state cutoff scores, compared with 33 percent in New York City. But while 18 percent of students in those cities fell into the lowest achievement category, 21 percent of New York City 4th graders did.

"Given the newness of the test and all of the anxiety surrounding it, I am encouraged by these results," Mr. Crew said.

Some educators criticized the state for including the performance of students in special education programs in the results released to the public. But state officials defended that choice, saying that schools must strive to hold such youngsters to higher expectations as well.

A breakout of the performance of special education students showed that a full 82 percent did not meet the state standards, compared with 48 percent of students in general education.

Vol. 18, Issue 38, Page 14

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