Report takes a hard look at who is scoring “well below proficient” on state’s ELA exams

The state’s standardized tests in English Language Arts made headlines last month when a software glitch disrupted and delayed testing for the second year in a row.

But research being conducted by the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz demonstrates a more pervasive and deep-rooted problem with the mandated exams — the surprisingly high number of third- and fourth-graders who are considered “well below proficient for their grade” according to State Education Department criteria.

The Benjamin Center study uses data on students’ overall performance on the ELA tests from 2012 to 2018, with a focus on children the state testing program is leaving behind; the students who, in SED’s terms, do not even meet basic proficiency standards on the tests.

The April 2018 tests were administered to nearly one million students statewide. In September, the State Education Department announced that 45.2 percent of students were proficient on the ELA tests, an increase of 5.4 percent over last year.

According to state standards, “proficiency” is achieved when a student scores a Level 3 or Level 4 on the exams. But that still leaves 54.8 percent who were not—over half of the 966,000 students who took the ELA.

Students who test at Level 2 are considered not proficient, and students who test at Level 1 are “performing … well below proficient for their grade,” according to State Education Department language. “They demonstrate limited knowledge, skills and practices embodied by the … Common Core Learning Standards for ELA/Literacy that are considered insufficient for the expectations at this grade.”

The study, using data from the State Education Department and the New York City Department of Education, looks at the big picture of children’s overall performance on the ELA from 2012 to 2018, and investigates the students who are being left behind by the state’s testing program.

They are the ones who, in the State Education Department’s terms, do not even meet basic proficiency standards on the tests. For non-native speakers, students with disabilities, or for children in marginalized groups, especially in the lower grades, the results are troubling.


Courtesy of the Benjamin Center


The research found, among other things, that for third graders:

In 2013, 67 percent of English language learners, and 74 percent of students with disabilities, were put in the category of Level 1. And close to half of black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students were rated Level 1.

By 2018, the percentage of L1s was in the 40 percent range for English language learners and students with disabilities, while nearly 25 percent of black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students scored at that level.

For fourth graders taking the test, the research found:

In 2013, about 70 percent of English language learners and students with disabilities, and around 40 percent of black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students, were deemed well below proficient.

By 2018, the percentages were less severe. Still, nearly half of the English language learners and students with disabilities were well below proficient, while approximately 25 percent of children of color and economically disadvantaged kids also had scores in the L1 category.

State Education Department officials point out, however, that following each test administration, the Department performs extensive analysis of test results, including multiple measures of validity and reliability, and they post the technical reports on their website for everyone to see. Additionally, they note that the state’s assessment program is reviewed by experts at the U.S. Department of Education through a peer review process.

SED also maintains that the department invites input about the knowledge and skill expectations for each students in each grade from New York state educators who are certified and experienced in teaching the grade-level and content areas being tested, and those recommendations form the basis of what is considered proficient or not proficient.

State Education Department officials say that, due to the changes in the design of the tests to reduce testing from three days to two, an apples-to-apples comparison between 2018’s test and prior years is not possible. They say the 2018 assessments will establish a new baseline from which to measure growth in student performance. The 2018 tests set a baseline to which the 2019 and 2020 assessments will be comparable.

“Since 2016, the Board of Regents and [State Education Department] Commissioner [MaryEllen] Elia have listened to the concerns of parents, educators and other stakeholders and made significant changes to the assessments in response to those concerns,” said Emily DeSantis, a spokesperson for the Department. “The ELA and mathematics testing sessions have been reduced to only two days each, resulting in substantially fewer questions than in recent years. For the third year in a row the test will be untimed and we will release 75 percent of the test questions. In addition, hundreds of New York state educators were involved in creating and reviewing questions for the Grades 3-8 ELA and math tests and selecting the questions for the test forms.”

The Benjamin Center report was researched and written by Fred Smith, a retired administrative analyst with the New York City public school system, and Robin Jacobowitz, director of Education Projects at the Benjamin Center. It can be found here.