When statewide test results were released recently for the fourth-and eighth-grade, many parents misunderstood them.
Some panicked because it appeared that Port Washington's fourth graders did not score as high as children from about two-thirds of Nassau County school districts. Perhaps that very fact is the reason Port's educators deserve praise, because it seems they were not merely "teaching to the test."
Others complained, ironically, that the fourth grade scored higher than the seventh grade, when in fact the two scores have no relationship.
Parents who disagree on whether to praise or condemn local schools might benefit from a brief education about what the tests show and how they are scored.
Potential for controversy hinges mostly on two issues. First, test scores for fourth-grade math position Port Washington at number 36 out of 52 districts in Nassau County. That might be called the bottom third. But be careful, because the score of 88.3 indicates that local fourth-graders did far better than the state standard.
The second issue for confusion might arise when comparing the fourth-grade math score of 88.3 to the eighth-grade score of 74.9. On the surface, it might be misunderstood to mean that the fourth grade did much better than the eighth grade in math. That too is an illusion dispelled by better information.
For starters, the scores must be understood for what they are. They reveal the percentage of students who scored at or above grade level.
This means that 88.3 percent of Port Washington's fourth-graders scored at or above the state standard for math in their grade level.
In fact, a summary issued by New York State Education Department lauds the jump of 5.5 percentage points statewide to a score of 51.8 percent, which is 36.5 percentage points below Port Washington. In other words, Port's scores are much higher than the scores that made the state's education officials so pleased.
The fact there were so many other Nassau County schools with higher scores may indicate a burden on the children in some of those districts.
In one school district outside Port, for example, a mother who did not want her name published disclosed that she complained after her fourth-grader consistently received four pages of nightly math homework. The mother was told that her 9-year-old was being prepared for the kinds of questions that would be on the fourth-grade math test. The mother in that district reports that her child has developed an intense dislike for math. That particular school district did better than Port Washington, scoring in the top five for Nassau County. In other words, teachers in that district were apparently required to "teach to the test."
Educators must repeatedly decide whether it is worthwhile to sacrifice individual development so the district looks better. Sometimes the competitiveness of parents forces administrators to make policy decisions that are not in the best interests of teachers or children.
"If we wanted to shine, and this is what educators call 'shining', we could discontinue some of the meaningful activities we do have. Our results are very good. We should not be in a position of competition with neighboring school districts over something questionable in academic progress," said Dr. Joe Hayward, Port Washington's Interim Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Assessment and Instruction.
"You want to be able to teach to the children and not to the test," Hayward said. " You want to look in their eyes and see if they are getting the math, and teach them in interesting ways that help them understand math and not merely pass a test."
He pointed out that school administrators are analyzing scores to assess strengths and shore up weaknesses. "For example, we'll look at how many youngsters are in English as a Second Language and other special courses. We'll compare demographics." Students who are not fluent in English might have trouble understanding questions, he said.
The school system will turn data into help for individual students.
Dr. Albert Inserra, Superintendent of the Port Washington School District, said, "We've added a math support program this year in each of our elementary schools and any child identified by the testing as needing help will be receiving help from math professionals."
Inserra emphasized, however, "What I care about is how are the kids doing."
The superintendent said, "Tell the community these scores will be going home to the parents in the next couple of weeks, so they can see for themselves."
Inserra noted that scores for the individual grammar schools will "be given out shortly." He expects that at that time there will be opportunities to interpret the scores to parents in a meaningful way, without causing parents to misinterpret the scores as competition between schools.
Scores for eighth grade include both math and reading. Port's eighth-graders scored 74.9 percent for math and 75.6 percent for reading. Those inclined to compare might be pleased with the fact those scores put local students in the top ten in Nassau County, coincidentally at tenth place in both categories.
Hayward warns not to compare the fourth grade with the eighth grade, because the tests are entirely different. The standards set are determined by a state education team reporting to Albany and he said they shift from year to year.
"One year the standard cuts off at a different point. It is not necessarily the kids, but it is also related to the people who put together the tests," Hayward said.
State test scores are not gauges of whether kids will succeed in life, enjoy their educations, or even whether they will get into the college of their choice.
Even when scores are intended to show individual progress, which these tests are not, Hayward encouraged keeping scores in perspective. "A kid with the highest average in school may be rejected from a college in favor of a youngster who is more well-rounded," Hayward said.
The statewide tests are not about competition.
The state uses the scores to identify schools that need extra help, such as schools that score below 51.5 percent of fourth-graders doing math at grade level, which marks failure to meet state standards. Port Washington is high above that cutoff.