Apr 25


Reading scores lag across WNY

A majority of pupils read at their grade level in only 19 of 99 school districts across Western New York. Overall, only 39 percent of third, fourth and fifth graders read at grade level. Another 31 percent lack even basic skills. Poverty and instruction are key factors.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Our second story is here

It’s not just Buffalo where students are struggling to read and write.

Only 39 percent of third through fifth graders in Western New York’s 99 school districts scored at grade level on recent English Language Arts tests.

What’s more, 31 percent of students lack even basic reading and writing skills. In some districts, including Buffalo and Niagara Falls, that figure approaches or exceeds 50 percent.

The problems extend from the city to the countryside, urban neighborhoods to suburban cul de sacs, according to an Investigative Post analysis of New York State Education Department data.

Poverty plays a big role. Reading curriculum is important and school environment also impacts scores, educators say.

“Similar to a lot of other areas in the country, we do have a reading crisis in the area,” said Ken Settles, WNY Education Alliance’s director. “I don’t think parents are aware of the struggles their own children oftentimes are having in schools.”

Investigative Post analyzed the results of standardized ELA tests of students in the third, fourth, and fifth grades conducted last spring. The analysis covered 99 public school districts in the eight counties of Western New York: Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, Genesee, Niagara, Orleans and Wyoming.

Key findings include:

  • More than half of students read at grade level in only 19 districts.
  • Students from wealthier families are more than twice as likely as those from poorer ones to attain grade level — 54 percent vs. 26 percent.
  • Economically disadvantaged students are also more likely than wealthier students — 42 versus 17 percent — to score at the lowest range on tests,  indicating they lack the basic skills needed to read and write at grade level. 
  • Districts reporting the highest percentage of students reading at grade level include some of the wealthiest: Williamsville (72 percent), Clarence (68 percent) and Orchard Park (62 percent).
  • Larger districts with the lowest percentage of students reading at grade level include some of the region’s poorest urban communities: Lackawanna (14 percent), Niagara Falls (19 percent), Dunkirk (23 percent) and Buffalo (25 percent).
  • Some of the smallest, rural districts with fewer than 500 students, have the lowest percent of pupils scoring at grade level: Andover in Allegany County (12.5 percent), Pine Valley in Chautauqua County (12.5 percent) and West Valley in Cattaraugus County (23 percent).

The problem isn’t limited to Western New York. For example, 32 percent of fourth graders nationwide are reading at grade level, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Statewide, 46 percent of third through fifth graders read at grade level.

“It’s all of Western New York and beyond,” Settles said. 

Changing the curriculum

The state’s ELA assessment is administered every year to determine reading and writing skills. 

Students scoring at levels three and four are deemed proficient or better. Level two students display skills “partial but insufficient for the expectations” of their grade.

Those scoring at level one display “insufficient” and “limited” knowledge, skills, and practices expected of them.

Nationally, there’s been a push in recent years to address low reading scores by turning to the “science of reading,” an evidence-based, phonics-centered style of instruction rooted in how the brain learns to read.

Gov. Kathy Hochul endorsed the movement earlier this year, when she proposed “Back to Basics”  legislation supporting the curriculum for New York schools. Hochul said she would include $10 million in the 2025 state budget to train teachers in science of reading instructional best practices.

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Many educators and advocates welcome the governor’s plan, saying it could help students who struggle the most. 

The curriculum is already used in New York City schools and is taking hold in a growing number of Western New York districts. Those using the “science of reading” approach — either in part or in whole — include Clarence, Cleveland Hill in Cheektowaga, Orchard Park, Lockport and North Collins, as well as Buffalo.  

According to educational experts, a third of students will learn to read with almost any type of instruction. But without the structured approach of phonics-based instruction, those experts say the remainder of students will be left behind.

“Reading is the foundation of our education system, but New York State is currently not meeting basic reading proficiency levels,” Hochul said when announcing her “Back to Basics” plan. “We cannot continue to allow our kids to fall further behind.”

Movement in Buffalo

In Buffalo, the focus is on phonics.

The most recent tests showed 25 percent of third through fifth graders read and wrote at grade level. Forty-nine percent of students scored at level one, indicating they're way behind.

The numbers are well below the region’s average. Nonetheless, scores are going up. A year before, 20 percent of students in those grades scored at proficient levels.

Buffalo is “beginning to change the tide,” Superintendent Tonja Williams said.

A  school bus waits outside Waterfront Elementary in Buffalo. Photo by Garrett Looker

A greater focus on phonics — as well as social and emotional health — is beginning to move the district forward, Buffalo officials said.

“A lot of work has been done with professional development of teachers and their mindsets,” Williams said. “It’s about having a belief that your students can and will achieve. So the team has done a lot of work around that.”

With 84 percent of students economically disadvantaged — defined as students who qualify for free or reduced lunch — Buffalo is the poorest district in the region.  

The struggles of poverty are a reality for many students, but not an excuse for low ELA scores, the superintendent said.

“When you’re growing up in a household where you’re not sure if you’re going home and there is good and nutritious food — and lights, and heat, and all of those things — it’s very hard to be successful in school,” Williams said. 

“We don’t let that be an excuse,” she said.

In Niagara Falls, superintendent Mark Laurrie says he, too, sees the effects of poverty in the classroom.

With 74 percent of his students deemed economically disadvantaged, 19 percent of Niagara Falls’ third through fifth graders were reading at grade level last year.

The most recent Niagara Falls reading scores are 2 percentage points higher than the previous year.

Each day is building the bridge to education, one piece at a time, Laurrie said.

“At other places, that bridge is built and you can just walk right across,” Laurrie said, referring to other wealthier school districts.

In fact, “The No. 1 indicator of a child’s outcome is income,” said Annahita Ball, who studies educational justice as an associate professor in the University at Buffalo’s School of Social Work.

“It’s not about how many hours the kids study, it’s not about if their parents make them do their homework before or after they watch TV. It’s about your income and the resources that you have,” Ball said.

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“It’s clear that students from wealthier backgrounds are coming to school with more foundational skills, more oral language development, and are more prepared for school. Starting points are very different,” said Settles, the WNY Education Alliance director.

But most importantly, the learning rates of children are not different, Settles continued. 

“It’s not that there’s a difference in learning, or student growth, or capability,” Settles said. “It’s the starting points are different, and those are largely a function of poverty.”

Beyond poverty’s effect

Even in some wealthier districts, reading and writing scores can be low. 

In Hamburg and Starpoint, like Williamsville, roughly 20 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. But while 72 percent of Williamsville students scored at grade level, about 40 percent of third through fifth graders in Hamburg and Starpoint reached that level on ELA tests. 

There are also some rural districts, including Pine Valley in Chautauqua County, with lower ELA proficiency scores and significantly smaller economically disadvantaged populations than in Buffalo.

With 55 percent of Pine Valley students economically disadvantaged, 13 percent are reading and writing at grade levels.

Some other districts, meanwhile, including Cheektowaga’s Cleveland Hill and Allegany County’s Cuba-Rushford, have high poverty yet higher-than-expected ELA scores.

Long-term impact

The importance of learning to read in elementary school cannot be overstated, regardless of family income, educators say.

If a child is unable to read at proficient levels by the third grade, then a lifetime of struggles — including lower incomes — could be in store, literacy experts and advocates fear.

Poor reading ability follows a student from their elementary years through to graduation, researchers at Yale University found.

But many of those young readers never make it that far.

Students who are unable to read proficiently by the time they finish the third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Rates are more severe for students from low-income backgrounds.

Beyond school, students may become one of the thousands of adults throughout Erie and Niagara counties who are “functionally illiterate,” according to Amy Mazur, Literacy Buffalo Niagara’s director of operations. Currently, one in six adults in Erie and Niagara counties only have the most basic literacy skills. 

“The single most important determinant in a person’s success in life is their ability to read,” Mazur said. “They might be able to read, but it’s a very literal type of reading.”

Tomorrow: Two school districts, one rural, one suburban, that are beating the odds.


Investigative Post

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