Most New York elementary and middle school students are still not on track to graduate ready for college, new test results showed Thursday, but education leaders saw progress in gains in math across all races and economic levels.
"The overall picture here is one of statewide progress but clearly much more work to do," state Education Commissioner John King Jr. said on a call with reporters.
In the second year of more difficult Common Core-aligned testing, 36 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 scored well enough to be considered proficient in math and on track to graduate without needing remedial courses for college. Last year, 31 percent met the benchmark.
On English assessments, the statewide proficiency rate was a flat 31.4 percent, compared to 31.3 percent in 2013.
King said national evidence shows that improving student performance in English "takes time" but that the state would look into why gains in English hadn't kept pace with math.
"We hoped for incremental progress; that's what we at the state and the districts are working toward," he said.
The results also showed that while more black and Hispanic students passed the tests, a gap remained between their results and those of white and Asian peers.
The annual tests taken by New York students in April were the second to be aligned to the Common Core standards, a set of guidelines adopted by most states intended to promote critical thinking in order to better prepare students for college and careers.
New York was among the first states to align testing with the new standards. After scores in both English and math plummeted last year, criticism of the testing grew with parents complaining the questions were confusing and teachers saying they lacked materials and training. Adding to the backlash this year were references to consumer products such as Nike that critics said looked like product placement.
More than 50,000 students refused to take this year's assessments.
"The bottom line is that students are getting hurt, money is being wasted and precious time is being spent on high stakes testing at the expense of more meaningful instruction," Dutchess County parent Anna Shah said in a statement from New York State Allies for Public Education, a parent-teacher coalition seeking an overhaul of the state Education Department.
"Teaching and learning in our state would benefit if we could reduce the fixation on testing and test results," the New York State Council of School Superintendents said. "Reaching the Common Core expectations will be a marathon, not a sprint, but there can be benefits for students all along the way."
New York City, the nation's largest school district, saw proficiency rise to 34.2 percent from 29.6 percent in math, and from 26.4 percent to 28.4 percent in English. The city outscored the other "Big Five" districts of Buffalo, Yonkers, Syracuse and Rochester.
Mayor de Blasio touted the higher scores during a news conference Thursday at a Brooklyn grade school that showed particularly sharp gains.
"We've got some momentum now, and now we need to build on it," said de Blasio, who took office midway through the school year with his own education plans, which include expanding pre-kindergarten. "It is good news. And it is a sign of things to come. It is a beginning. We have a tremendous amount of work ahead."
Both King and New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina said the results reflected the city's early commitment to align instruction with the Common Core.
For the first time, this year's results were delivered in terms of growth from last year. Rather than compare results by grade level, the state used a "matched student" approach that compared the performance of the same students from one year to the next.
Student growth on the tests are used in yearly teacher evaluations and can be considered for student placements, but under legislation passed in June, low-rated teachers won't be at risk of losing their jobs based on the new tests until after the 2014-15 school year.