State test scores for Tri-Lakes area public school students took a nosedive last year, mirroring what happened in schools across the North Country and around the state.
State Education Department officials predicted the drop-off because this was the first round of tests aligned with more challenging national Common Core standards in math and English. The tests were administered to students in grades 3 through 8 in April. The results were released last month.
New York is one of the first states to implement the Common Core into its curriculum, doing so in a single year - to the consternation of many teachers, students and parents.
"Our exams this year were national news," Lake Placid Central School District Superintendent Roger Catania told the district's school board at an August meeting. "Our scores were national news. Not necessarily for good reasons, but because the New York scores are reflecting something that's new nationwide."
Like most students across the state, the majority of Lake Placid students scored at the lowest levels, 1s and 2s, rather than 3s and 4s.
"They had told us in advance to expect most of our students would be scoring in the 1s and 2s, so there's really no surprise there," Catania said. "However, when the scores came out, it caught a lot of attention."
Lake Placid's mean assessment scores dropped by more than half across the board.
This year, 22.8 percent of third-graders scored in the top two levels for English tests, while 58.3 percent made the top two levels last year. Math results for third-graders showed a larger drop - 70 percent scored in level 3 or 4 last year while only 27.3 percent did so this year.
Eighth-graders fared a little better. Last year, 51.7 percent scored in the top two tiers for English; 45.6 percent scored that high this year. In math, 61.4 percent of eighth-graders scored at level 3 or 4 last year compared to 31.1 percent this year.
Catania cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from any one set of statistics.
"This is one important piece of information, but there are certainly others," he said.
He encouraged the board to look at all the opinion pieces being written on the test scores. He told the Enterprise he doesn't believe this is the best way to achieve the goal the state is shooting for.
"I'm personally not a proponent of creating a system in which two-thirds of the kids fail," Catania said, "because I don't see that as being highly productive."
He said the district tries not to overemphasize the importance of tests like these to students, but he does believe the scores will affect them.
"At an individual level, sure, I would believe that getting low scores is discouraging to kids," Catania said. "The question is, what do they do with that?"
It may motivate kids to do better, but it might not, he said.
"I guess we're going to see how this changes things, but I think it's a work in progress, and I think it's a question that remains to be answered," Catania said.
The number of Saranac Lake third-graders who took the English test and scored at the two highest levels, 3 and 4, fell from 66 percent last year to 26 percent this year. The same happened on the third-grade math test, when just 27 percent scored at the highest levels compared to 63 percent last year.
The same was true for older students. The number of Saranac Lake eighth-graders who scored at levels 3 and 4 this year on the English test was 37 percent, below last year's 52 percent. Only 20 percent of eighth-graders scored at the highest levels on the math test, compared to 57 percent last year.
Saranac Lake district Superintendent Diane Fox said the results weren't surprising.
"We had been told since the beginning of last year when other states went to the Common Core that their results had dropped significantly," she said. "We had been warned all year that our numbers would look like that."
Before the tests were given, many teachers complained that they hadn't received all the materials they needed or been given enough time to prepare their students for the tests. Fox said that "absolutely" played a role in why the numbers were so low.
"Common Core curriculum is very different from the curriculum we've been using," she said. "The emphasis has gone to a lot of nonfiction text, close reading, a lot more writing, and you can't catch up in the six months that the materials were available and the Common Core was actually out to teachers. We did the best we could. We have a baseline, and we'll go from there."
Students who score below level 3 on the tests are normally required to receive academic intervention services. With so many more students in Saranac Lake and other districts scoring at levels 1 and 2 this year, the state has said it will adjust where that cutoff will be, according to Fox.
"At this point it would be most of our students," Fox said with a laugh. "It loses the point. It's supposed to be small-group specialized services, but when you have your entire grade level except for eight children in it, it loses its meaning and its value. So the state is going to give us a little leeway."
This will be the first year teachers around the state are supposed to be evaluated based in part on the results of their students' state test scores, as well as local measures. Given the poor results, will teachers be getting bad grades? Not necessarily, Fox said.
"Once again, the state has come out with information that they're going to be adjusting that for this first year," she said.
As the new school year begins, Fox said the district's staff and administrators are "taking a collective breath" after what she described as a stressful and time-consuming effort over the past year to implement new teacher evaluation standards and usher in the Common Core.
"We need to take the focus off of all those other pieces and focus back on our kids," Fox said.
State test scores for Tupper Lake students in English and math were less than half of what they were the previous year, but district Superintendent Seth McGowan said he isn't worried.
"We want to be careful about the comparison to previous exams," McGowan said. "It would be like having a Honda Civic last year and judging your gas mileage on that, and then switching to an 18-wheeler and saying you're getting worse gas mileage. It's a whole different game, a whole different exam, a whole different base of knowledge."
Only 10.5 percent of Tupper Lake third-graders scored at level 3 in English this year, compared to 40 percent last year. None scored at level 4 either year.
Math scores showed a similar disparity. With eighth-graders, only 3.6 percent scored at level 3 this year while none scored at level 4. Last year, 38.8 percent of eighth-graders scored at level 3 in math, and 6 percent made level 4.
Those numbers are consistent with the results for every grade in both subjects: The percentage of students scoring in level 3 or 4 dropped by more than half while the percentages for level 1 more than doubled.
McGowan explained that the Common Core standards require students and teachers to reconsider how learning is done. That, he said, is not a bad thing.
"We knew the numbers were going to look different; we knew we were upgrading our expectations," McGowan said. "I think the new Common Core standards that are being used are fantastic, they're really what we've been looking for in the field for years. It's deeper. It's richer. It's more problem-solving-based than a pure, simple recall."
With the new learning standards, the state has focused more on enriching specific areas of learning instead of moving quickly through multiple topics. The idea, McGowan said, is to increase students' ability to apply knowledge to solving real-world problems.
McGowan said the necessary shift in teaching style will take time.
"This (new) kind of learning requires almost surgical-like strategies for defining what each kid's background knowledge is, what they understand, how they think and how they can think at a deeper level," he said. "That you can't do in a lecture hall anymore."
Budget cuts haven't helped, either. McGowan said one of the biggest hurdles of implementing the new standards is finding the teachers to do it.
"We have decreased funding and higher expectations and higher standards for assessments," McGowan said. "I wish the governor's office and the state Education Department would have more conversations before either making budget cuts in education or launching new initiatives."
McGowan said it's now more important than ever for parents to get involved in their children's education. To facilitate that involvement, information will be available at school open houses, parent-teacher conferences and on the school district's website.
"Parents need to help their children come along in this new paradigm," McGowan said. "I want to kind of push people in that direction, because those are the things that are going to make or break a child's education. The most important teacher a child will ever have is mom and dad."