A state decision to raise passing standards on English and math tests has produced a dramatic drop in the number of students deemed academically proficient on Long Island and elsewhere across New York, outraging many local school officials.

State Department of Education officials, after more than a decade of reporting annual performance gains, reversed course Wednesday and announced big declines - often 20 percent or more - in test passing rates for grades 3-8 statewide.

In Nassau County, for example, the percentage of eighth-graders meeting state standards on English tests given in the spring fell to 71.4 percent from 84 percent the prior year. Suffolk's figures dropped to 63.6 percent, from 78.9 percent in 2009.

The latest statewide figure in eighth-grade English was 51 percent, down from 68.5 percent.

State education officials contend that higher passing standards will provide students and parents with a more realistic picture of where they stand, while also boosting the state's chances of winning hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top incentive grants.

But some local school leaders blasted the state for raising cutoff scores in midsummer - more than two months after districts adopted their 2010-11 budgets. This, local officials said, means scant chance of extra remedial instruction for students who performed poorly, as districts have little or no opportunity to scrape up needed additional funding.

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"Kids thought they were doing OK, and then, 'Wham!' " said Roberta Gerold, superintendent of Middle Country schools. Passing rates on eighth-grade English tests there have dropped to 73 percent from 86.3 percent in 2009.

Gerold said local students probably would be informed of their scores by letter in September - an approach expected in many districts. She said she anticipates numerous questions from parents.

Karen Lessler, whose son graduated from Middle Country's schools and who now is president of the school board, charged that the state's scoring "is manipulated for political reasons, not student achievement."

Teachers and school administrators aren't against academic rigor, she said, and the state's decision to change grading standards after students had taken the exams seems punitive.

"The Department of Education is a test-and-punish system," Lessler said. "Instead of being education leaders, we're going backwards."

Some of the biggest drops in passage rates were recorded in mostly minority districts, where many students in the past have barely met the state's cutoff levels. In Roosevelt, 42.6 percent of fourth-graders were deemed passing in math this spring, compared with 89.9 percent the previous year. Hempstead's figures dropped to 55.1 percent, from 87.6 percent.

Charles Renfroe, president of Hempstead's school board, expressed mixed emotions.

"I would love to see the state raise the bar," he said. "But the thing is, without advance notice, it might be a bit unfair."

While state officials had suggested for months that they might toughen proficiency standards, the policy-making Board of Regents granted formal approval only last week. Technically, what the state did was to increase "scaled" scores required for passage. Such scores are based on raw point scores, and can be raised or lowered each year depending on the difficulty of specific questions.

This year saw a jump in points required for passage. In sixth-grade math, for example, a minimum 35 raw points were needed out of a possible 49 to show proficiency. Last year, only 24 points out of a possible 49 were required.

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In recent years, Regents came under pressure to raise the cutoff scores after critics pointed out that academic gains reported on state tests were not reflected in results on more rigorous national exams. For example, those exams, administered by the federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress, showed substantial gains in fourth-grade math for New York State from 1992 to 2007, but no gains at all during the subsequent two years when scores on state tests continued to rise.

Merryl Tisch of Manhattan, the Regents chairman, described the state's new passing rates as "facing the hard truth."

Regents acknowledge that schools won't be required to expand remedial instruction this fall, while voicing hope that many schools will find ways to focus on academic areas where performance is weak.

With state lawmakers still unable to adopt a final school-aid package, many local superintendents wonder where they would get the money to do that.

Robert Reidy, executive director of the State Council of School Superintendents, said his group respects the state's efforts to improve testing, but questions the timing. "We are concerned that schools could be set up to fail," he said.

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With Keith Herbert