Wealthy Districts Outpace Poor on State Exams

Despite test scores going down throughout New York, the gap between rich and poor remains when it comes to student performance.

“The districts that are lower-needs districts significantly outperformed the other districts in the state,” said State Commissioner of Education John King at Wednesday’s press conference in Midtown.


Lower-need communities include wealthy suburbs, whose residents pay higher taxes to support education. Numerous studies have found strong links between a family's income and education level and student performance, because these children are usually read to starting at an early age and benefit from extra attention.

"Affluent kids generally have higher literacy levels due to the education of their parents," said Pedro Noguera, a professor of education and sociology at NYU's Steinhardt School. "Districts serving affluent children reflect this advantage."

Schools in wealthy communities also tend to have fewer English language learners, African-Americans and Latinos.

A little over 50 percent of students in low-needs districts scored at or above proficient (a level 3 or 4) on the state math and English Language Arts exams, compared with 31 percent of students statewide.

For example in Nassau County's Great Neck, which has traditionally spent more money per pupil than almost all other state districts, between 60 and 70 percent of students were proficient this year, which is twice the statewide average. Just about 10 percent of Great Neck students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, and the vast majority of students are white and Asian, according to 2011-12 state data.

Similarly high proficiency rates were found in districts like Roslyn, Long Island -- where 51 to 64 percent of students were proficient this year, and Westchester's Scarsdale -- where 61 to 75 percent of students were proficient.

Still, these high-performing wealthy districts saw their proficiency rates fall 20 to 30 points since last year's exams. In Great Neck, between 77 and 92 percent of students were proficient last year.

Nassau, Westchester Suffolk and Rockland county’s scores ranged from 33 to 43 percent proficient, all above the statewide average. But they still showed a big decline from 2012, when 64 to 78 percent of their students passed the tests.

Because this year’s exam was so different, direct comparisons with last year’s scores are difficult to make. When asked if the achievement gap has widened since last year, Commissioner King said he was not sure, but said the scores between low-needs and high-needs communities are “proportionally similar.”

Even within the higher performing counties surrounding New York City, districts with more needy students demonstrated extremely low proficiency levels, comparable to the poorest communities in New York City.

For example, Hempsted, Nassau County’s biggest town, showed proficiency rates that ranged from 5.6 to 12 percent. Last year, its rates were typically in the 30s and 40s. Hempstead is 96 percent black and Latino, and 84 percent of its pupils qualified for free and reduced price lunch in the 2011-12 school year.

Similarly, Yonkers public schools showed just 16.4 percent of students proficient in ELA, and 14.5 percent proficient in math. About 75 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch and 76 percent of students are black and Latino.

“We are clearly not satisfied with the results, but advocate for the standard’s increased expectations and the transition to a more accurate understand of true college and career readiness,” said Yonkers Superintendent Bernard Pierorazio in a press release.

There were signs of high performance in some low-income communities. Several New York City charter school networks touted scores that were well above average. But overall, 25 percent of city charter students were proficient in English - less than the citywide average of 26.4 percent. In math, 34.8 percent of charter students were proficient compared to the citywide average of 29.6 percent. Charters have traditionally scored higher on both exams, on average, than traditional city public schools.

As state education officials continue to emphasize the creation of a new baseline of learning achievement, schools in low-income communities will have their work cut out for them as they build up to the common core’s demanding new standards.