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State: English Language Arts, math standardized test scores up slightly

As usual, the percentages of students in Nassau

As usual, the percentages of students in Nassau and Suffolk counties scoring proficient of better on state standardized exams this past spring exceeded state averages. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Long Island parents who get letters from school districts over the next few weeks informing them of their children's scores on standardized tests could be getting a bit of good news.

Scores on state tests in English Language Arts and math are inching up, both on the Island and across the state, even as the number of students participating in those exams grows.

State education officials on Thursday released results of spring testing, which showed that 51 percent of participating Long Island students in grades three through eight scored proficient or better in English, while 54.2 percent did the same in math. Those numbers are up from 49.7 percent and 52.1 percent, respectively, in 2018.

As usual, the latest rates for students in Nassau and Suffolk counties exceeded state averages, which were 45.4 percent in English testing and 46.7 percent in math.

More than a million students statewide, including more than 80,000 on the Island, participated in annual testing this past spring. 

Veteran school administrators caution, however, that the uptick in testing achievement could reflect a common pattern, in which scores gradually rise as teachers and students become more familiar with testing formats. 

"As always, I like to see the efforts of children and staff yielding positive results," said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of the 5,000-student Plainview-Old Bethpage district in Oyster Bay Town. "But I am not sure we want to put a great deal of weight on any slight statewide changes in regard to the tests."

Meanwhile, the share of students boycotting assessments dropped statewide to 16 percent, according to the Education Department. That's down from 18 percent in 2018, 19 percent in 2017 and 21 percent in 2016.

Those numbers have run much higher on the Island — around 45 percent this year on English tests, according to Newsday surveys. But even that figure is down from the opt-out figure of about 51 percent recorded last year.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who is leaving at the end of this month after four years in office, took a positive view Thursday of the results. The state's top school administrator said results appeared to reflect efforts taken by her department to rebuild public trust in its testing program — for example, by shortening testing periods from three days to two in both English and math, and by involving more classroom teachers in the writing of test questions.

"Remember, and we include Long Island teachers in every one of our committees, that teachers are the ones who are writing the questions, reviewing the assessments," Elia said. "So all that, I think, has rebuilt some of the trust that was lost. We have a ways to go." 

Leaders of the Island's still-robust test boycott movement took exception.

"I don't see public trust being rebuilt at all," said Diane Venezia Livingston, a Port Washington parent and civic activist. "I feel like schools have become fearful, because of the threat of retribution." 

Livingston is co-founder of a local group, Port Washington Advocates for Public Education, that opposes what it regards as misuse of standardized testing. 

Statewide tensions did indeed rise in mid-January, when the Education Department released a list of hundreds of schools and districts, including dozens on the Island, rated as needing academic improvement. Listings were the first to take into account the percentages of students refusing to take state tests. 

Federal law requires at least 95 percent of students in designated grade levels to be tested every year. Only a handful of elementary and middle schools on the Island meet that regulation.

"I wish parents had more faith in these tests, but they don't," said Roberta Gerold, superintendent of the 9,700-student Middle Country district in central Brookhaven Town. Middle Country was one of the systems designated by the state as a "Target District" requiring improvement.

Later in January, the State Legislature, in response to teacher and parent protests, voted overwhelmingly to alter a law basing as much as 50 percent of teachers' and principals' job ratings on the test performance of students. Parents, in particular, said the system put too much pressure on teachers and children alike. 

The original law was pushed through the legislature in 2015 by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who, nonetheless, signed this year's amended version into law. 

Under the revamped system, school districts no longer have to include results from state exams in employees' job evaluations. However, districts still must include results from standardized tests of some sort — for example, nationally distributed exams chosen by districts themselves.

The continued emphasis on standardized testing has prompted some boycott leaders to describe the amended law as little better than the original.

"Our goal is to ensure that parents who choose to protect their children from harmful high-stakes testing still have an ability to do so, and once again we met that goal this testing season, in spite of the outgoing commissioner's attempts to retaliate against those that make this choice," said Jeanette Deutermann of Bellmore, chief organizer of the Island's movement.

New York's testing system remains more rigorous than most. A report issued Wednesday by the National Center for Education Statistics, a federal research agency, found that cutoff scores set by this state to determine student proficiency ranked among the higher benchmarks in the country. 

In fourth-grade mathematics, for example, New York was 18th among 49 states in the difficulty of its scoring. In eighth-grade reading, the state was 17th out of 47 states.

Defenders of the state's testing system describe it as a useful tool in tracking student performance. 

"The results show incremental progress in helping more students reach proficiency as well as a slight closing in achievement gaps," said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust-New York. "By making it possible to compare proficiency from 2018 to 2019, this year's results can provide more meaningful information to educators."

The Manhattan-based Education Trust is a nonprofit research and advocacy agency, focused on the needs of low-income students.

On the other hand, New York State United Teachers, a statewide union umbrella group representing more than 600,000 school employees, has pressed the state to set lower cutoff scores on its tests. The union group's position is that the tests' current cutoff scores for determining proficiency are unrealistically high and provoke anxiety among students. 

On Monday, the union's president, Andrew Pallotta, gave a radio commentary to the effect that Elia's departure offered a chance for a "fresh start" in education that "truly fixes the broken grade 3-8 English Language Arts and math tests."

Elia, asked about Pallotta's statement during Thursday's news teleconference, responded, "Let me just say to you, I'm not sure what planet he's on. It's certainly not in New York State."

On the Island, more than 68,000 students in grades three to eight refused to take the English Language Arts test in April, representing 45.1 percent of those eligible, according to a Newsday survey covering the majority of the Island's 124 districts.

The numbers, though down slightly from 2018, marked the fifth straight year of major protests throughout the region. The movement first appeared on the Island in 2013, then exploded statewide two years later, and has remained widespread both here and upstate.

With Michael R. Ebert

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