The name at the top of Business First's middle school rankings is a familiar one. Transit Middle School of Williamsville is No. 1 for the sixth straight year.
"We're really proud of our program," says Daniel Walh, Transit's principal. "Of course, there are great teachers all across Western New York, but our teachers really make a difference. They've contributed in a great way to our long-term success."
This is the ninth time that Transit has occupied first place since the middle school rankings were launched in 2002. The Williamsville school was No. 1 in 2003, 2005 and 2006 before beginning its current six-year streak in 2009.
WESTERN NEW YORK MIDDLE SCHOOL LINK:
• Top-to-bottom middle school rankings.
• Slideshow of the top 100 middle schools.
• Profiles of all middle schools.
• Subject awards for middle schools.
• Explanation of how the ratings were done.
• List of unranked middle schools.
Transit remains on top this year because of its continuing excellence in the core subjects of mathematics and English:
It ranks as Western New York's best middle school in math, based on Business First's analysis of standardized test scores from 2010 to 2013. And it's second-best in English, trailing only City Honors School of Buffalo.
Transit is the lone school within the eight-county region to have more than 25 percent of its seventh and eighth graders earn superior marks on all statewide math and English tests in 2013. (Superior is defined as a Level 4 score.)
It's one of two middle schools where at least 65 percent of all test-takers achieved basic scores (Level 3 or 4) on those same tests. City Honors is the other.
Business First analyzed the academic records of 205 public and private middle schools throughout Western New York. Middle schools typically encompass sixth through eighth grades, though some begin with younger students.
Ratings were based on four years of test scores compiled by the New York State Education Department.
City Honors is this year's runner-up, the same position it occupied the three previous years. The Buffalo school, which extends from fifth through 12th grade, is rated separately as a middle school and a high school.
Rounding out the top five in the middle school standings are a pair from Williamsville, No. 3 St. Gregory the Great School and No. 4 Casey Middle School, followed by No. 5 St. Benedict's School of Amherst.
St. Gregory the Great has been inching toward the top of the middle school list, rising from fifth place in 2012 to fourth a year ago and now to third. It's the top-rated private school in the current standings.
Critics insist that many local schools are guilty of placing too much stress on annual statewide exams. But Patricia Freund, St. Gregory the Great's principal, says her school has achieved success by taking the opposite tack.
"We don't put a tremendous amount of emphasis on those tests," she says. "We'll have a brief review a couple of weeks out, then we just keep moving forward. You don't have to jam things down students' throats just before the tests."
Six of the 10 leaders in 2014 also finished in the top 10 a year ago. The newcomers to the elite group are St. Benedict's in fifth, East Aurora in eighth, Clarence in ninth and St. Mary's of Lancaster in 10th.
This marks the third straight year that East Aurora Middle School has pushed higher in the rankings, climbing from 21st place in 2011 to 14th, 13th and now eighth.
"First and foremost, we have a phenomenal team of caring professionals here," says Mark Mambretti, East Aurora's principal. "That may sound like lip service, but it's not. I've never seen a team that works as hard, day in and day out."
Thirty-two middle schools have qualified for subject awards this year, indicating that they rank among the top 10 percent of all Western New York schools in English or math, based on four years of test results.
Ten schools excel in both fields, earning a pair of subject awards. Among the double winners are eight of the top 10 schools in the overall standings: Transit, City Honors, St. Gregory the Great, Casey, St. Benedict's, Mill Middle School of Williamsville, East Aurora and St. Mary's.
Transit's Walh says that success in one subject often leads to similar results in the other.
"The irony, as far as tests go, is that the math test is very much a literacy test," he says. "The questions are getting longer, and reading and comprehension skills are getting more important, even on math tests."
Business First does not rate private middle schools that opt out of the state testing program, since there is no objective way to rank them. Among the prominent schools that are not rated are Elmwood Franklin School, Nichols School and Park School of Buffalo.