Long Island students in grades 3-8 scored slight gains on the latest English and math tests despite prior reductions in state financial aid that had forced many districts to cut teaching jobs and increase class sizes.
The Island's average passing percentage in English rose to 67.1 percent, compared with 64.2 percent a year before, results from April standardized testing released Tuesday by the state Department of Education show. Passing rates in math bumped up to 75.4 percent, from 74.6 percent in spring 2011.
Statewide passing rates in English also improved, to 55.1 percent from 52.8 percent, while statewide math rates rose to 64.8 percent from 63.3 percent.
State school officials, who faced fierce criticism in the spring for extending the length of some tests to more than four hours over three days, voiced cautious optimism Tuesday about the uptick in scores. Those officials added, however, that scores remain too low, especially among students of color and those with disabilities.
"These results are a small, positive sign of growth, but not enough of our students are climbing as steadily as they should be," Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. said in a statement. He added that performance should continue to improve as the state phases in a more rigorous "Common Core" national curriculum during the coming school year.
The latest test results carry special significance because they will be used for the first time in helping to evaluate teachers' job performance.
The Education Department plans to deliver its first teacher ratings -- ranging from "highly effective" to "ineffective" -- to local school districts in mid-August. The department's initial ratings will apply to about 52,000 teachers statewide, including 7,000 on the Island, who teach English and math in grades 4-8.
The score improvements announced Tuesday, while slight, could serve as major morale boosts in some districts.
Amityville district administrators said all local schools appear on track to be rated in "good academic standing" by the state in the fall. Last year, two of those schools, Edmund W. Miles Middle School and Park Avenue Elementary Memorial School, appeared on Albany's "needs improvement" list.
"That's a piece of the good news," said John R. Williams, the district's superintendent, who added that special education students had made particular gains.
Meanwhile, leaders at Roosevelt Children's Academy Charter School voiced concern over a large drop in scores there. On English tests, for example, fewer than 40 percent of third- and fourth-graders passed in April, compared with more than 70 percent a year before.
Robert Francis, the school's board chairman, said the fall in scores appeared to coincide with state changes in testing lengths and formats.
"We're going to have to act pretty fast to turn this situation around," Francis said, adding that specific actions could be announced within weeks.
Critics of the state's teacher-assessment system, including many educators, question whether the new job ratings will be accurate, given problems that arose during April's testing. On the Island, as elsewhere, school administrators and teachers reported that many younger students appeared exhausted by tests and unable to complete their work effectively.
In addition, school principals and others pointed to typographical errors and other flaws in test questions as evidence that the system needs fixing. One confusing reading passage about a pineapple and a hare in an eighth-grade English Language Arts test gained nationwide attention, and the Education Department announced that questions related to the passage would not be counted toward students' scores.
Department officials have maintained that occasional errors are to be expected in large-scale testing programs, and are routinely corrected with no long-term damage to the system. Testing critics, on the other hand, persist in describing the system as fundamentally flawed.
"Our credibility has been shot," said Roger Tilles of Great Neck, the Island's representative to the state Board of Regents, who spoke to a reporter Monday.
Percentages of students in grades 3-8 who met or exceeded standards on state tests given in the spring.
Long Island 67.1%
Long Island 75.4%
Source: NYS Department of Education