By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY Test scores released this week showed alarmingly low results for some parts of the state, particularly upstate cities and among minority students.
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While the tests were harder than previous years, the results are raising concerns over how New York - which spends more money on education than any state in the nation - is preparing its students for college and the workforce. New York spends $19,076 per student a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in May.
"We're spending more per pupil than any other state. We ought to have better results than we do," said Heather Briccetti, president of the state Business Council.
Thirty-one percent of students in elementary and middle schools were proficient in math and reading on the exams last spring, state officials announced Wednesday. That's down from about 65 percent in math and 55 percent in English on exams given in 2012.
The drop out was anticipated after the state in April gave new tests based on more challenging curriculum, called the Common Core. The tests were hurried, school officials said, and didn't leave enough time for teachers and students to prepare.
The complaints were echoed across the country as 45 states also introduced similar Common Core measures at the urging of the federal government. New York was one of the first states to administer the tests in the 2012-13 school year, which ended in June.
State Education Commissioner John King stressed that the results would serve as a comparison for future years and wouldn't be used punitively to evaluate the performance of students and teachers this year.
"The results are not a critique of past efforts. They establish a new baseline for evaluating student performance going forward," King said.
But King recognized the results showed wide disparities in performance among demographics. Students in wealthy districts exceeded the state proficiency standards, while poor and rural districts, as well as minority students, struggled. The results were similar at charter schools.
In a glaring example, just 5 percent of students in Rochester, the state's third largest city, passed the math and English exams -- the lowest among the state's largest districts.
Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, the former mayor of Rochester, said the problems in cities are a combination of needing to reform schools and building better home lives for children.
"As a former mayor, I understand," Duffy, a Democrat, said Wednesday in Buffalo. "And I have great frustration. There are systems and every part of that system has to have the courage to step up and push for change. Our kids can learn; our kids can succeed."
The test results showed that 52 percent of students in wealthy districts passed the tests, compared to 10 percent in the state's largest cities and 18 percent in smaller cities. Twenty-three percent passed in poor, rural districts.
Among minority students, 16 percent of black students passed the English exam and 18 percent of Hispanic students did. Five percent of students with disabilities met or exceeded the English standards, and 7 percent met the math proficiency level.
A review Thursday by the Alliance for Quality Education, a labor-backed group, found that wealthier districts had a 33 percent drop in English scores this year compared to last year. The drop in high-need districts was greater: between 44 percent and 63 percent, the group said.
The group, which lobbies annually for more state aid, said the disparity is in part due to inequities in classroom funding. While the state has increased school aid in recent years - to more than $20 billion annually - districts dealt with several years of flat or reduced funding before 2012.
The Alliance for Quality Education said wealthy districts spend about $8,600 more per student than the neediest schools.
"The plunge in student test scores reveals, yet again, the growing opportunity gap in this state between the haves and the have nots," said Billy Easton, the group's executive director.
Business groups have increased their involvement in pushing for higher test scores, saying students need to be better prepared for today's workforce. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also pushed for more stringent exams and teacher evaluations, saying New York's performance is not matching how much public money is invested in the system.
The test results showed that only 35 percent of students statewide are deemed college ready when they graduate high school. Among black students, the college readiness was 13 percent.
A review in July by Gannett's Albany Bureau found that New York has more than 700,000 people out of work, but at least 70,000 open jobs. Business groups said schools aren't adequately preparing students for the work force and closing the job skills gap.
"In order to compete in a knowledge-based economy, we must improve the academic performance of our students," business leaders wrote in an open letter Thursday in support of the Common Core standards.
"Our state is once again at a critical place in our quest for educational excellence, and the need for a strong employer voice is greater than ever."