Debunking the Claims of CCSD Student Performance Declines (Part 1)

Why are people trying so hard to argue against all evidence that student performance in the Clarkstown Central School District (CCSD) is declining?  As I mentioned in my Facebook “Special Education Evaluator” post, the New City Patch ran an article with the headline: Clarkstown Schools Identified By State As “District In Need of Improvement”.  That post also explains that the identification was based on very specific and limited criteria.

It was no surprise, of course, to see the usual assortment of bloggers condemn the entire school district based on that headline.  It was rather a big surprise, however, to hear Board of Education members make similar arguments at the Sept. 8th Board meeting.  Strikingly, they were not reacting to a misleading headline, but to a series of detailed presentations from the CCSD school principals.  These presentations included results analysis of the 2011 English Language Assessment (ELA), with action plan and goal set proposals to improve results. 

Mr. DeGaetano commented, “Most of the district is doing fine.”  He then added, “There are troubling signs in our elementary schools.  I would like to see if we can put reading teachers…10 of them…in the schools.  We have problems in our elementary schools.“

Mrs. Ehrenberg added: “I am hearing today, yes, that Festa had a problem with the Special Ed.  Yes, Birchwood had their graduation.  It is the people, the general population, that is struggling in (Level) 2.  I think what we need to do is really have someone come in and look at our reading, look at the whole thing, and put in something for everybody.  Not just Special Ed.”

Wait….what?  Mr. DeGaetano and Mrs. Ehrenberg are seeing performance declines among our elementary students.  At the same meeting, Dr. Deborah O’Connell called the results “a success story for the entire K-12 system”. 

So who is right? 

I do not have the ELA data analysis that the CCSD had presented.  However, I do have the aggregate ELA data from the NYS Education Department.  It supports Dr. O’Connell’s conclusion and generally matches the data presented at the meeting.  I do not see “troubling signs” throughout the elementary schools.  Let’s take a look at this chart, which shows the percentage of CCSD students vs. New York state students in grades 3-8 achieving proficiency of Level 3-4 on the ELA’s in 2006 and 2009-2011.

Source: NYSED -
As you can see, in 2009 CCSD students rocked the assessments with 91% achieving Level 3-4 proficiency.  In every chart…every single chart…presented to the Board of Ed, there was a big arrow placed between 2009 and 2010.  I have added it here for consistency.  So, what’s with that arrow?

Well, as was repeatedly explained to the Board that night, in 2010 the Regents and administrators of the ELA made the tests much tougher.  Not only that, but students had to score higher on these tougher tests to earn the same levels of proficiency. 

When you hear people talk about CCSD student performance dropping in 2010 in the ELA’s, technically they’re right.  They simply ignore that test scores dropped, by design, for everybody.  The CCSD still outperformed the state average by virtually the same margin in 2009 and 2010, and this margin increased in 2011.  The increased difficulty of the tests works for the CCSD, as I’ll explain shortly.

First, let’s take a look at the ELA results of the “general population” at Felix Festa Middle School during the same period.

Source: NYSED -

 As you can see, the ELA results of FFMS students closely match the results for all grades 3 - 8.  In both cases, there is improvement in the general results between 2010 and 2011.  Notice the difference between 2010 and 2011 – 120 fewer FFMS students scored Level 1-2, a rather significant improvement.

So, clearly that big arrow means something, right?  Mr. DeGaetano said of these results: “And then we go to the state scores, and they ask the kids to do more, people come back and tell us, well, the scores were cut, there’s always excuses.” 

Excuses?  Well, according to this 2010 press release from the NYSED: “As a result of raising the bar for what it means to be proficient, many fewer students met or exceeded the new Mathematics and English Proficiency standards in 2010 than in previous years. Across Grades 3-8 statewide, the majority of students, 53% in English and 61% in Math, met or exceeded the new Proficiency standards this year.  By contrast, in 2009, 77% of students met or exceeded standards in English and 86% of students did so in Math.”  According to this August 2011 press release from the NYSED, the state increased the difficulty of the tests again, raised the cut scores and specifically increased the difficulty of achieving Level 4 proficiency.  You can find the details of the changes in the formation, administration, and assessment of the ELA’s on the NYSED website

Mr. DeGaetano called the developers of the tests and assessments “brilliant” people who must have changed the tests for a reason, but does not acknowledge their plainly stated goal of lowering the test scores!  It is hardly an “excuse” to acknowledge that these are very different standards compared to 2009 and prior.  Making a direct comparison to the net results is like insisting that I should be paying $2.61/gallon for gas now, because that’s what it was in 2009.

Still not convinced that the changes made a big impact?  OK, let’s take a look at how many districts had at least one grade level that achieved the same percentage of Level 3-4 proficiency (91%) as the CCSD in 2009  and how many did that again in 2011.
Source: Oh, it’s the same source!
I notice a slight drop.  The number of districts that made the cut went from 567 in 2009 to 27 in 2011.  Of course, many districts, like the CCSD, had several grade levels with 91+% Level 3-4 proficiency in 2009.  How was the number of grade levels impacted in 2011?

Looks like I need an arrow again.  See that flat little red line?  The number of grades 3-8 that made the cut went from 2,681 in 2009 to 29 in 2011

(Here’s a fun fact: The CCSD averaged 694 students per grade level taking the ELA’s.  The average number of students per grade level with 91+% proficient in those 27 districts is 61.)

When you look at the data and the informational releases of the NYSED regarding the ELA and Math assessment changes, it is blindingly obvious that the CCSD is not lowering the bar or suffering performance declines.  The state has dramatically raised the bar for the past two years.  Most of the children who are “struggling in (Level) 2” would be Level 3 or even 4 by the 2009 standards.  By the way, the state’s definition of Level 2 is “Meets the basic standard”, not “failing” as one commonly hears.

So, what must the CCSD do in response to the state’s raised bar?  Well, they should do what they have clearly been doing – raise their own bar.  This is why the increased difficulty in the tests and assessments in 2010 (and again in 2011) is beneficial to the CCSD!  Let me bring up the first chart again.

Notice that in 2006, the percentage of students in the CCSD achieving Level 3-4 was 81%, a solid 19% higher than the NYS average.  In 2009, 91% of CCSD students achieved Level 3-4, only 13% higher than the NYS average.  Had the test NOT been changed, the CCSD students would likely trend to 96% and the state average would be 86%, only 10% higher and running out of room.

By changing the tests and assessments, the state essentially proved that the CCSD students continue to significantly outperform their peers.  In fact, the most recent data shows that outperformance is INCREASING to 2006 levels.  The chart below shows the net performance gap between CCSD grades 3-8 on the ELA vs. the state average and the Rockland County average.

Note the trend lines.  Between 2006 and 2009, when the CCSD student scores increased, the net performance gap actually decreased!  The net gap between 2009 and 2011 increased between the CCSD and NYS (13% in 2009 vs. 17.5% in 2011), and between the CCSD and the Rockland county average (0.6% in 2009 vs. 9.3% in 2011).

I then compared the percentage of CCSD students meeting Level 3-4 against their NYS and Rockland peers as a performance ratio.  It looks even better.

Let me be clear: these are the percentages above NYS and Rockland that CCSD students are delivering.  How is NYS compared to national standards?  Well, according to 2009 NEAP data, NYS assessments were performed to a standard deviation of 1.4, which means that in 2009 – the year before everything was made much harder in NYS – the assessments were pretty accurate.  The new 2010/2011standards should reflect well for Clarkstown against national results.

The bottom line is that when I look at the ELA test result data for the last six years – and the last three years in particular – I do not see student performance declining, I do not see troubling signs in our elementary schools, and I do not see students struggling in failure.

I see an assessment system that was significantly altered to raise the bar considerably higher than assessments in the past.  I see that this raised bar gave the CCSD more room to show just how great the quality of education is in this district, and how that quality is and will continue to increase.  As Dr. O’Connell said, I do, indeed, see a success story.

What do you see?

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