Upstate’s poor educational performance

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Historically, economically disadvantaged students have performed poorly on the New York’s annual student assessments. That pattern continued in the 2022-2023 school year.

John Bacheller

On the state’s grades 3-8 mathematics examination, only 30 percent of students in districts where 80 percent of students were economically disadvantaged were rated proficient, on average, compared with 70 percent of students in districts where 20 percent of students were disadvantaged. Sixty percent of the difference in school district performance was associated with the percentage of needy students.

However, there were significant differences in performance between school districts with high percentages of disadvantaged students. For example, in the Rochester City School District, where 91 percent of students were disadvantaged, only 12 percent were rated proficient. In New York City Geographic District 19, where 92 percent of students were disadvantaged, 35 percent passed.

The data shows significant differences in performance in high-disadvantage school districts. Students in upstate cities performed poorly—even more poorly than average schools with similar percentages of disadvantaged students. Student performance in the Rochester, Syracuse, East Ramapo, Schenectady, and Binghamton school districts was the worst of those with 2,000 students or more. In these districts, proficiency rates were between 12 percent and 20 percent. Compared to the average performance of schools with similar percentages of disadvantaged students, student proficiency rates in each district were at least 10 percentage points lower. For example, if students in the Syracuse school district performed as well as the average district with a student body that was 85 percent disadvantaged, 26 percent would have passed, compared to the actual percentage, which is 14 percent.

The contrast between the performance of students in upstate central cities and their more affluent suburbs is striking. Rochester’s 12 percent proficiency rate compares with neighboring Penfield’s 78 percent rate. Syracuse’s rate is 14 percent, compared with that of affluent Skaneateles, which is 74 percent. Schenectady’s 17 percent rate is 51 points lower than Niskayuna’s 68 percent rate.

New York City geographic districts generally performed better than average districts with the same percentage of disadvantaged students. Although there were significant variations between districts, the rate of New York City district students with proficient scores averaged 18 percentage points higher.


Unfortunately, student performance in school districts with high percentages of disadvantaged students continues to be significantly weaker than in more affluent neighborhoods. Although overall student performance in New York City geographic districts was better than elsewhere, city student performance was better in districts with higher percentages of affluent students. Controlling for both economic disadvantage and students who identified as Asians or Pacific Islanders provides only a partial answer to why New York City’s disadvantaged students do better than those outside the city.

Students at large city school districts outside New York City did poorly, both absolutely and compared with other schools with the same levels of economically disadvantaged pupils. The poor performance of the students in these school districts compares dramatically with more affluent areas outside them.

It is unreasonable to attribute differences in student performance between districts entirely to differences in district effectiveness. Because New York’s school districts vary significantly in other characteristics, other factors could be in play. Although it is easy to blame teachers and administrators for the disappointing results, the difficulties are associated mainly with disadvantages faced by students in poor neighborhoods that schools cannot erase.

Among these, according to the Economic Policy Institute in “Five Social Disadvantages That Depress Student Performance,” are:

■ parenting practices that impede children’s intellectual and behavioral development;

■ single parenthood;

■ parents’ irregular work schedules;

■ inadequate access to primary and preventive health care; and

■ exposure to and absorption of lead in the blood.

Even so, charter schools offer approaches that, in many cases, have been associated with better performance by disadvantaged students, especially in New York City.

John Bacheller, former head of the policy and research division of Empire State Development, is an author of Policy by Numbers, a blog that focuses on data and policy at the state level, with a focus on Upstate New York.

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7 thoughts on “Upstate’s poor educational performance

  1. SHCOOL?
    This sign was painted on a street outside a Manhattan high school. In January, 2012, this made news in the NY post and in other media. Immediately, the spelling was fixed.
    But perhaps it would have been better to keep the spelling, as SHCOOL, rather than SCHOOL.
    I say this, because, maybe it is better to focus on MISTAKES, to wake up students and teachers, to the real purpose of learning and education. By TRIAL and ERROR, we are motivated to learn
    not by automatically getting things right, the first time.
    “Experience is the name everyone gives to their MISTAKES” (Oscar Wilde)
    If we learn to tolerate mistakes, more often, we might learn how to accelerate learning.
    TEACHER contains the same letters as CHEATER.
    Hopefully, SUPER – INTENDENTS have super intentions… Thanks much

  2. When you teach the same way over and over, year after year, decade after decade and then expect different or better results, you have what you have today. The kids deserve better. The “adults’ in the room ought to be able to develop a unique and creative educational journey that keeps kids in class, learning and graduating with a relevant diploma. A program that takes into account all the issues that urban kids have to deal with MUST be developed. You need to adjust the programs. But when you insist on doing things the same way over and over, you have just doomed the next class. What’s really mindboggling is the district (RCSB) actually believes that doing things the same way over and over, will get positive results. It’s a duh situation.

  3. It’s a given that students with challenging home lives don’t do well academically. Charter schools aside, since there is a family self-selection that values education, do any of these reports provide any guidance on viable solutions that communities or elected officials can implement? Urban schools have never recovered from the implementation of the Civil Rights Act that forced integration and the unintended consequence of white flight that followed. Unless we decide to move to a county-wide school system that could dilute the concentration per class of needy students and make an all-out effort to assess each student’s living situation and provide meaningful resources to support families, nothing will change, no matter how much money we spend on schools.

  4. If these stats here are reflective of reality, this is sad state of affairs. First , there are a lot of people around here that struggle to pay the exorbitant level of School Taxes annually. Not to mention robust pensions and health care benefits for teachers and district employees, free tuition for secondary education. A school bus system that Greyhound would envy, with a endless pipeline of grants from Albany for school remodeling and “EV” school busses (for many districts with no charging infrastructure) while they are forcing Schools to change their mascots if related to American Indians. (and little gems we read about like RCSD being investigated for taking liberties with their bond prospectus) Add to that, the proposed elimination of Regents exams & other standardized testing, and these are the results? (then Gov Rockefeller socked the taxpayers for the School system back-in-the-day but at least he got results) I find the reasons listed intriguing. “Access to Health Care”? NYS fully embraced Obamacare and took the expanded Medicaid money. Where did that money go. “Lead Paint”? That was banned in the 70s? I thought NYS and its robust bureaucracy had a lead paint disclosure law (at a minimum) . NY’s college system was still well thought of in industry as recently as this century. Reading this makes me think its all a money pit about to roll off a cliff. This alone is cause enough for a taxpayer revolt!

  5. Does the data exist to take this analysis further? It would be useful (and potentially more actionable) to see a charter+private school vs public school breakdown by district. I realize that charter and private schools may draw students from more than a single school district, so it might be necessary to exclude certain schools, or make assumptions concerning their primary source of students, or to just sort them geographically, but it would still be helpful to see the analysis extended.

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