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MAP: See How Your Elementary School Ranks on State English Tests

By Amy Zimmer | September 16, 2014 7:24am
 The Upper West Side's Special Music School ranked No. 1 in the city for fourth-grade scores on the state's English tests.
Top Performing Elementary Schools
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MANHATTAN — Every single fourth-grader at the Upper West Side's Special Music School passed the state's English Language Arts test this year. 

The tiny elementary school, which has just 15 students per grade, boasted the highest pass rate in the city on the tough test this past spring, according to a ranking compiled by Tom Goodkind, a Lower Manhattan accountant who crunches city data each year to see how schools stack up against each other.

Goodkind's annual ranking sorts the city's 700-plus elementary schools based on the percentage of fourth-graders who passed the English test, highlighting the top-performers. He focuses on the fourth-grade ELA test because it is often a key part of students' middle school applications.

The Special Music School's perfect pass rate is all the more impressive because across the city, fewer than a third of all fourth-graders passed this year's English Language Arts test, records show.

Principal Katie Banucci-Smith credited her West 67th Street school's success to a music-focused curriculum that reinforces the reading skills kids need to do well on standardized tests. The Special Music School is the only public elementary school in the city that admits students based on musical giftedness.

"They're doing everything from reading a score to being able to diagnose the turns and patterns in music, so they're kind of getting a double dose training in literature," Banucci-Smith said.

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Several other school's in the top 10 on Goodkind's ranking also had gifted programs, including NEST+M on the Lower East Side, where 95 percent of fourth-graders passed the English test, and the Anderson School on the Upper West Side, where 91 percent passed.

Those programs are among the most elite in the city, accepting students with the highest gifted and talented scores.

Other high-performing schools this year included the Upper East Side's Lower Lab School, a gifted program for students living in Manhattan's District 2 where 97 percent passed, and Bath Beach's P.S. 748, a neighborhood school with a gifted program attracting students from across Brooklyn's District 20, where 92 percent passed. 

Several of the top schools were simply strong neighborhood schools with no gifted programs and admit all students who live in the zone. Those include Sunset Park's P.S. 172, where 85 percent of fourth-graders passed the English test, and Park Slope's P.S. 107, where nearly 83 percent passed.

Many of the strongest performers — like the Upper West Side's P.S. 87, Park Slope's P.S. 321 and Greenwich Village's P.S. 41 — were among those that protested after the English test was given last spring, complaining about age-inappropriate content and poorly explained multiple-choice questions that seemed to have no one right answer.

Alexander Messer, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 321, said he still has concerns about the test, even though 81 percent of the school's students passed it.

“Even if you're happy with how your school and students did — and I am happy to see we did well — we still haven't had a full dialogue about these tests,” he said, noting that teachers don't receive a breakdown of how students did by question and content area, so the results aren't very helpful.

Goodkind has been compiling the elementary school rankings for more than a decade, and he said they hardly vary from year to year — even as the scores overall dropped in 2013 when the test was made harder to align with the more rigorous federal Common Core curriculum.

The harder test meant that schools saw lower pass rates than they did a few years ago, but the best performing schools remained roughly unchanged, Goodkind said.

"The good news is that the schools in the top 20 percent stay there," Goodkind said. "It remains the same no matter how many years I do this."

The Special Music School anchored the top of Goodkind's list between 2010 and 2012, but the harder test in 2013 came as a shock because its format was so different, and the school dropped to 45th place that year.

Since then, Banucci-Smith changed the test prep program to match the new exam and now the school, which is based out of the Kaufman Music Center, is back on top.

Jenny Undercofler, the music director of the Special Music School, believes that the "sophisticated act of decoding" involved in learning and reading music is a similar brain skill to picking apart essays.

She also said the secret to the school's success involved good teaching, small class sizes and that kids who are involved in music "tend to have good discipline."

"They're used to practicing their instruments every day," she said. "Doing homework is easy compared to practice."

Plus, the school's longtime and much-loved fourth-grade English teacher throws a disco party after the test.

"She lets the kids dance on the tables," Undercofler said.