Schools mull how to respond to high test failure rates

Plainview-Old Bethpage Superintendent Lorna Lewis speaks to parents Plainview-Old Bethpage Superintendent Lorna Lewis speaks to parents Debbie Edelstein and Lauren Sackstein, both of Plainview, about the lower student test scores recently released by the State Education Department. (Aug. 9, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Thousands of Long Island parents soon will get official notices that their children for the first time failed state tests, as schools scramble to deal with the expected emotional and educational fallout.

One immediate question facing school districts: whether to provide remedial instruction for all -- or any -- of the additional students scoring less than "proficient" on state tests. Albany this year is leaving that decision largely in local hands, rather than requiring remediation as usual.

Tests were administered statewide in April in grades 3-8.

On Long Island, the change in state policy on remediation, though not widely publicized, will be deeply felt when schools start opening on Sept. 3. The change will remain in force throughout the school year.

More than 126,000 students in Nassau and Suffolk counties scored below proficiency on state math tests this year, compared with fewer than 51,000 in 2012. More than 122,000 students received subpar scores on the latest English tests, compared with fewer than 68,000 in 2012.

"Maybe by the letter of the law, we could ignore them," said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools, who wants to expand remedial services in her district. "But we cannot in good conscience ignore students that might have a deficiency. How do you explain that to parents?"

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Parents must be notified each year of their children's scores on state tests and whether those scores meet state academic standards. State education officials say this year's scores will be sent by the end of this month to local districts, which will then pass the information along to families.

Normally, any youngsters scoring below proficiency would qualify for some type of remedial assistance, known as Academic Intervention Services, depending on the degree of need. "Proficiency" indicates students understand subject matter appropriate for their grade level.

 

Not a normal year

But this is far from a normal year, with so many more students deemed failing, and school officials say there is simply not enough money to provide extra help for all students who might technically qualify.

The state Education Department has notified districts that it will provide "comparable rigor" charts, which can be used to determine if youngsters would have passed under last year's lower testing standards.

In such cases, districts will not be required to provide extra academic help, at least for the coming school year. State authorities say they do not expect a significant increase in students requiring services.

The state's rationale is that the best way to prep students to meet its higher academic standards known as Common Core is through improved classroom teaching, rather than remedial tutoring. Common Core sets uniform learning goals for each grade level and has been adopted by 44 other states.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"Let's not make the focus of this remediation," said state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. "Let's put the focus on the improvement of instruction in the Common Core."

Some local education leaders doubt this argument will go over well with parents worried that their children are at academic risk.

Lewis, for example, is proposing that her district hire two new teachers, one in English, another in math, to provide more remedial help, at an annual cost of $150,000. Eighteen staffers already work in that area.

Roosevelt's school chief, Deborah Wortham, said her district plans to provide Academic Intervention Services support for all students with nonproficient scores. Russell Stewart, the superintendent in Center Moriches, said he has set aside $75,000 more for remediation that will be provided online and in classrooms.

"We did plan ahead and we did set money aside and we knew this was going to happen," Stewart said.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Most school administrators contacted by Newsday last week said they still were reviewing students' files, and had reached no final decision on remediation. Several said they would focus on regular instruction -- the approach recommended by Albany -- and not expand tutoring.

"There is no way we can provide Academic Intervention Services for 70 percent of your kids," said Paul Casciano, superintendent in the William Floyd district.

 

Hard concepts to explain

State education officials who released test results last week tried to reassure parents that plunging passage rates were due to upgrades in academic standards and adjustments in cutoff scores, and not to any fault on the part of students or schools.

But local educators say that's a hard concept to explain to youngsters who may have passed state tests in the past and now suddenly encounter what they perceive as failure.

"It's hard to make sense of all of this -- even for adults," observed Joseph Rella, superintendent of Comsewogue schools, in a letter addressed last week to local parents and guardians. "Children will not understand how they went from doing very well to failing . . . I DON'T UNDERSTAND IT."

Dozens of school chiefs across the Island say they will issue their own messages to parents over the next week or so, offering their views on state testing and, in many cases, emphasizing that local schools remain academically strong.

Some parent leaders fear those strengths could erode, under pressure from intensified state assessment.

"The state is making us conform to these crazy tests, and all it's doing is raising havoc," said Cheryl Dender, 51, PTA council president in the Plainview-Old Bethpage district and a mother of three. "You've got children who are creative and bright, but because of where the state puts these test cutoffs, they may not do as well."

Supporters of the new academic standards have mounted publicity campaigns of their own. On Friday, over 40 business leaders from across the state signed an open letter urging Albany policymakers to stay the course with Common Core standards. The corporate CEOs and executives said this would help increase the state's economic competitiveness.

One signer, Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association, voiced optimism that scores will improve in coming years.

"I have faith in our schools, our kids and our teachers, and expect that Long Island will soon be on top again," said Law, who heads the Island's largest business group.

With Michael R. Ebert

You also may be interested in: