ALBANY -- Test scores for students in grades 3-8 improved slightly this year, while the percentage of students who opted out of the English and math tests last spring fell, the state Education Department announced Tuesday.

On the English standardized tests, the percentage of students who were deemed proficient increased 1.9 percentage points to 39.8, up from 37.9 in 2016. Math scores increased 1.1 percentage points to 40.2.

READ: State Education Department Releases Spring 2017 Grades 3-8 ELA and Math Assessment Results

“I’m encouraged by the modest improvements we’re seeing in our test scores,” Board of Regents chancellor Betty Rosa said in a statement. "As I’ve always said, testing is just one piece of the puzzle to understand how students are performing."

The tests have come under heavy criticism, and the state has sought to lessen their impact by not using them to gauge the overall performance of students and teachers.

As a result, the number of students who opted out of the exams given in April and May fell to 19 percent of the eligible students, down from 21 percent in 2016 and 20 percent in 2015, the Education Department said.

“Real progress takes time,” State Education commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a statement. “So, the test scores we’re announcing today are a positive sign that we continue to steadily head in the right direction."

In the Big 5 school districts -- the state's largest city districts -- the proficiency levels also improved.
Yonkers had the largest improvement, up nearly 4 percentage points in math and English. But Rochester continued to produce the worst results, despite an improvement between 2016 and 2017: less than 8 percent of students were proficient in math and English.

Test scores statewide also improved for black and Hispanic students over last year, which has been a focus of the state's efforts because of a gap in performance with white students.