Catania: Low test scores don’t reflect school performance

Lake Placid Central School District Superintendent Roger Catania discusses state test scores during Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting. At right is district Administrative Assistant Karen Angelopoulos (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

LAKE PLACID — While about 80 percent of Lake Placid High School students are proficient in the Regents exams, only about 30 percent of those in grades 3 through 8 passed the state’s English language arts and math tests.

This spring, 31 percent of Lake Placid students who took the ELA test showed proficiency — in math, 25 percent. That is down for ELA from 36 percent in 2017 and up in math from 24 percent the year before, but the state Education Department test results website warns, “Due to the State’s new two-session test design and performance standards, the 2018 Grades 3-8 ELA and math results cannot be compared with prior-year results. The new baseline established this year will enable comparisons with student scores in 2019 and 2020.”

Lake Placid’s rates are well below the state average of 45 percent proficiency in both math and ELA, as are those of the other Tri-Lakes school districts. Saranac Lake had the same 31 percent proficiency in ELA and 26 percent in math. Tupper Lake showed 24 percent in ELA and 28 percent in math. Keene, on the other hand, showed 68 percent proficiency in ELA and 63 percent in math. AuSable Valley showed 40 percent proficiency in ELA and 39 percent in math. (Editor’s note: This article has been updated since the print edition version.)

However, Lake Placid normally has graduation rates well above the state average — 93 percent in 2016-17, compared with 80 percent statewide — so do the results of these tests really indicate how well its student will do in school? Despite low proficiency on state tests in grades 3 through 8, Lake Placid Central School District Superintendent Roger Catania said he and many teachers are not confident in the results of these particular Common Core-aligned exams.

“I think the standardized tests can only tell you a small, narrow story of what kids in schools are capable of,” he said at Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting. “You also see kids who walk out of here prepared for college and careers. Many kids are in honor societies or have two years’ training in a particular field, which is fabulous. That being said, this is not being reflected in those grades 3 through 8 scores.”

The national Common Core State Standards started in 2010, and New York adopted them 2011. Many teachers, parents and administrators have taken issue with them and especially the test based on them, saying they complicates easy lessons.

In many cases, Catania said, the questions on the grade-3-through-8 tests are just not based on what the students are learning at the time.

“The intent of the exams is to test for higher-level thinking and application, which is good intent,” he said, “but many of these questions are out of left field or something the child has never seen before.”

These days, many parents are opting their children out of these tests — ranging from zero to nearly 90 percent, depending on the district.

“That never happened before,” Catania said, “but now it’s happening at large percentages. We’ve been at the highest when about 30 percent opted out here, and now we’re at about 20 percent. This is bigger than Lake Placid. This goes not just to the state but also to the national level and even the international level.”

Catania also said teachers are unable to use the 3-through-8 test results to their advantage because by the time they get them, a new school year has already started.

“If a student takes a Regents exam on a Thursday,” he said, “by Friday that teacher will have the results. They’ll be able to see what specific questions the students got wrong or how wrote an essay, and that’s a good tool to have. With 3-through-8 exams, teachers might not see those results for four months. Those students will have already shifted grades at that point.”

One of the advantages of the test results is that the state breaks them down into scores based on economic background, and the opportunity gap is something Lake Placid has been focusing on for many years. The results show that kids who come from financially struggling families don’t do as well on the tests as a student who comes from a stable home.

“This is one of the biggest issues in education today,” Catania said. “This is the social class achievement gap. The social class gap is student achievement is proving to be twice as large as the gap between racial and ethnic groups. I think we need to continue to shine a spotlight on that gap because you can’t address unless you first know what the problem is.”

Even if a school has the best teachers in the country, it’s still going to be tough for a student coming from a poor family to succeed, Catania said.

“Aspects of education reform tend to focus on school improvement, which is good,” he said. “We should always work on improving schooling, but what you miss is what’s going on outside of school. So if we’re going to continue to be a society that has very poor and very wealthy families and a middle class that isn’t growing, it’s likely we’re going to continue to be a society in which our students perform in vastly different ways depending on their family background.”