Students head back to school next week, and they do so dogged by low test scores, courtesy of the new standards aimed at ensuring students are better prepared for college and careers.

"We're definitely not happy with the scores, of course," said Port Chester Assistant Superintendent Frank Fanelli.

This is only the second set of English Language Arts and math assessments since the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Statewide, students made slight progress in ELA and greater strides in math, but the numbers still remain much lower than in previous years.

New York State is expected to release individual student score reports for parents in September.

Going along with the state trend, Blind Brook's math scores were on average ranked at level three (proficient), while the ELA results garnered level two scores (partially proficient) in most grades. For the second year in a row, Blind Brook performed better than the New York State average in both ELA and math. That being said, when comparing cohorts of students year to year, the percent deemed proficient decreased at Ridge Street School in both math and ELA and at the middle school for ELA.

Just like last year, Blind Brook Superintendent William Stark said he is reluctant to speak about the specific numbers without more time to analyze the data. He expects to have a better idea of how Blind Brook students have done after comparing their scores to those of students in comparable districts such as Rye Neck, Byram Hills and Chappaqua.

Stark estimated that the district would have a better handle on the scores by October, but added that "the measure of a school district is more than one set of assessments."

Professional development remains a priority

"We always want to do better than we've done and there's always room for improvement," Stark did say. "I'm kind of not going to say that at this particular point I can arrive at any conclusions about what the assessment results indicate. I do know that a great deal of effort and energy and professional development went into preparing for these assessments. They were taken seriously by the faculty and by the administrative team."

The district brought in outside consultants to help get ready and Stark said there is even more professional development scheduled for this year. The problem, he added, is that schools are still working with a moving target as aspects of the Common Core and the assessments remain in flux.

Professional development has also been a priority in Port Chester.

"We've-more than other districts-have really embraced the Common Core and are moving ahead with the modules at each grade level and mapping and doing tons of staff development, especially in math," Fanelli said.

Access to actual assessment questions is essential for teachers and students to prepare for future tests. At the beginning of August, the state released half the questions from the tests taken in the Spring, which is double what was available in the past.

Poverty and language

Across the board, Port Chester students performed worse than the state average. The only exception was King Street School for math. Averaged across the district, all grades and subjects earned a mean level two score except for third grade ELA and

eighth grade math, which garnered level one, which is below proficiency. In fact, not a single eighth grader earned the highest ranking in math at the Port Chester or Blind Brook middle schools. This, however, is likely due to elimination of double-testing allowing accelerated math students to participate in high school math Regents exams instead of the grade-level math test.

On a school by school basis, King Street did the best, ranking a level two in both subjects at every grade. Conversely, JFK did the worst. This divide does not surprise Fanelli as socioeconomic factors play a huge role in test scores. "They (King Street School) have a smaller population of ESL (English as a Second Language) and a smaller population of free and reduced lunch," he said.

New York State has struggled to provide guidance on teaching Common Core to bilingual students and has actually been using Port Chester as an example for other schools on how to do that well.

Like Stark, Fanelli said comparing similar schools is a better measure of success and for Port Chester that is districts like New Rochelle and Ossining.

"I'm not happy at all with the scores, but before I throw the baby out with the bath water, I'm going to make sure I look at every factor that has us compared to students who are similar to us before we can draw comparisons," Fanelli said.

While Port Chester performed worse than the state average, Fanelli expects that when he digs down into the numbers, the district will come out ahead of the schools with similar free and reduced lunch populations and also bilingual students and English Language Learners.

While the number of level three and four students did not increase a lot in Port Chester, Fanelli is pleased with the movement of level one students into the next group. That starts the students on the correct path to proficiency.

Too soon to tell

As this is only the second year of assessments under Common Core, it is too soon to jump to conclusions, Fanelli said. Having seen educational testing reform several times over, Fanelli said it takes years to see the effects.

Stark agreed.

"I know Bill Gates (who helped fund the development of the standards) said we won't know whether or not the Common Core will be effective for at least 10 years," he said. While he may not agree with everything Gates says, Stark said he thought Gates was correct on that particular point.

Districts won't know for years if Common Core is the best choice, and Stark said he still has reservations, especially regarding the assessments and the rollout of the program, both of which he described as not proficient. "I'm using language that they use," he added. "I would say that it's developing at best. That's one of the reasons why people are very reluctant to make decisions about employment and about student success from a program that really didn't have its act together."

Fanelli, too, felt the rollout could have gone much smoother.

"I don't necessarily like the speed and the irregularities that get pushed down to the district level without thorough thinking," he said. Fanelli does, however, understand the urgency behind the implementation: the more time without solid standards, the more kids lost. "We can't wait, so we should move forward because our kids' education is at stake here."

In the past, schools had different standards without uniform quality control. Even just in Port Chester, the elementary schools were "islands unto themselves," he said. "Now everyone has to speak the same language and our expectations have to be the same for all our kids-so those are the good things that are happening with all this."