Long Island students' state test scores plunge

Passing rates on New York State 2013 standardized school tests plunged by more than half in math and nearly as much in English on Long Island and statewide, compared with the previous year's rates, according to results released by the state Education Department. Videojournalist: Patrick McCarthy (Aug. 7, 2013)

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The number of students in grades three through eight who passed state tests plunged more than 40 percent on Long Island and statewide -- a result that top education officials pinned largely on new exams overhauled to meet challenging national academic standards.

Less than half of all students in those grades passed exams given in April, in contrast to majorities that did so in 2012, according to results the state Education Department released Wednesday.

On the Island, 37.5 percent of students in grades three through eight passed the new math test, compared with 75.4 percent last year. In English, the percent of students across those grades passing the latest tests was 39.6 percent, down from 67.2 percent in 2012.

Statewide, 31.0 percent of students in grades three through eight passed the latest math tests, compared with 64.8 percent in 2012. In English, the percentage of students statewide deemed proficient or better dropped to 31.1 percent, down from 55.1 percent of students last year.

More than 1 million students statewide took the exams.

This year's testing marks the second time in four years that the state has upped the academic ante -- sparking protests from local school administrators and teachers, and a test boycott this spring, with hundreds of parents having their children "opt out" of taking the exams.

State education officials and many business leaders defended this year's shift to national Common Core academic standards, saying students will gain a more realistic picture of whether they are prepared for colleges and careers.

Too often, these authorities said, students graduate from high schools only to be assigned to remedial courses once they enter college. Currently, more than half of all students attending SUNY and CUNY community colleges find themselves so placed.

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. summed up the goals of more rigorous testing in a letter to parents posted Wednesday on the department's website.

"The changes that we are making now provide us a new opportunity to make sure that every single New York State student graduates from high school prepared and able to make choices about his or her own future in a dynamic and competitive economy," King wrote.

The new standards -- adopted by New York, 44 other states and the District of Columbia -- set specific student learning goals for each grade level. Compared with most state standards used in the past, the new guidelines call for more advanced reading vocabulary, more analytical writing and more applications of math to solving real-life problems.

Local school administrators generally agree that Common Core standards set higher expectations for students. Those administrators contend, however, that the Education Department has rushed the new tests into place without adequate preparation for either teachers or students.

New York State United Teachers, a statewide umbrella group, found that only two of 20 curriculum guides in elementary math promised by the state had been provided to local educators when spring testing began.

"The commissioner says we're going to leave kids behind if we don't move fast," said Roberta Gerold, superintendent of Middle Country schools and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association. "I'm suggesting we're going to leave kids behind if we move too fast."

Gerold drafted her own letter for Middle Country parents.

"We strongly believe there is no correlation between these latest assessment results and our students' ability to be college- and career-ready," the letter states.

New York is among the first states to incorporate the Common Core into its tests. The state's agreement to do so was a major factor in its winning nearly $700 million in federal Race to the Top money in 2010.

Albany's testing changes over the past four years have revolved around efforts to bring its requirements more in line with those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally funded project.

In 2009, to cite one example, the state Education Department's tests indicated that 80.2 percent of eighth-graders in New York were proficient in math. NAEP tests that same year, however, found only 34 percent of the state's eighth-graders proficient. The latest statewide passing figure for eighth-grade math -- 31 percent -- is nearly identical to the latest NAEP figure of 30 percent, recorded in 2011.

Most national education analysts support recent moves by Kentucky, New York and other states toward testing standards that are uniform and rigorous, saying this could help the United States catch up academically with other advanced countries, such as Finland and Singapore.

"If you want our students on a par with high-performing countries, this is what it's going to take," said Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based agency that provides research on education programs and policies.

Many of the Island's business leaders applauded the state efforts, saying students need the help to prepare for high-tech jobs.

"Our greatest asset is a well-educated workforce," said Desmond Ryan, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island, which represents major commercial developers.

Local school officials said efforts to improve student learning would go much more smoothly if the Education Department released test results earlier. They added that Wednesday's release comes far too late to allow results to be used to arrange summer training for teachers or fall classroom assignments for students.

Department spokesman Tom Dunn said scoring of tests took about three weeks longer than usual this year because of format changes, and the turnaround should be quicker in the future.

Local educators also complained that the state has moved too fast in using test scores to help evaluate teachers' job performance.

Any such project involving tens of thousands of teachers is likely to have unforeseen consequences, local officials said, especially if the state does not allow ample time to work out the wrinkles.

One superintendent on Suffolk County's South Shore recently told Newsday that, of more than 100 teachers rated in her district so far, only three were deemed by the state to be less than effective in their work. As it happened, all three taught advanced eighth-grade math classes, designed to prepare students for Regents algebra exams normally taken by ninth-graders.

The superintendent, who asked that the district not be named, said results suggested that the teachers were unfairly penalized because they taught an advanced curriculum different from what is required to prepare students for eighth-grade math tests.

Dunn, in response, said the agency had requested a federal waiver that would allow Regents algebra exams to be used, when appropriate, in place of eighth-grade math tests. The U.S. Education Department rejected the request on grounds that uniform testing was required, he said.

Local administrators said that reinforces their contention that Albany should have taken more time to work out kinks in the testing-and-evaluation system before imposing it.

"It seems the state has put a lot on the line here," said David Feller, superintendent of North Merrick schools and president of the Nassau Council of School Superintendents. "They should have given themselves a little more breathing space."

With Michael R. Ebert

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