"Teachers are doing the best they can, and this is...

"Teachers are doing the best they can, and this is a comeback year" after COVID-19 disrupted instruction and caused low test scores for Hempstead students, according to Randy Stith, Hempstead school board president Credit: James Escher

School leaders in Hempstead, where nearly a thousand students in grades 3-8 failed the state's latest tests, contend they have begun making progress while noting it could take years to boost achievement to acceptable levels. 

Hempstead's failure rate represents 40% of all students tested, and is the highest figure for any district in Nassau County. Comparisons with other districts are inexact, because percentages of students participating in tests vary widely from one district to another. 

The 6,600-student Hempstead district is the only one on Long Island with a state-appointed monitor responsible for helping to raise academic achievement. Another local district, Wyandanch, with about 2,860 students, has a monitor assigned to help with finances. 

In defense of their record, Hempstead authorities noted that their district, like others in the region, suffered major hits during the COVID-19 pandemic when schools shut down and students were consigned to months of remote instruction at home. 

WHAT TO KNOW 

  • School officials in Hempstead, where 40% of students failed the state's latest English tests, contended they were making progress, but that it could take years to fully boost achievement. 
  • Hempstead is the only Long Island district in which the state has appointed a monitor to help to improve student performance. 
  • Scores also were low in Wyandanch, where a state monitor is assigned to help with finances but not academics.

Experts outside the district point to poverty as another key factor in failure rates for many districts. 

"We made strides, but then COVID came, right?" Hempstead school board president Randy Stith said in a phone interview. "Teachers are doing the best they can, and this is a comeback year."

Hempstead's struggles reflect a nationwide phenomenon. In late October, federal testing officials announced that New York and most other states experienced record declines in scores during the pandemic years.

Shortly afterward, New York released district-by-district scores from state tests in English and math that had been administered last spring in grades 3-8. This marked the first time that full-fledged testing results were available since the pandemic began, and outcomes were widely discussed at board meetings throughout the Island.

In Hempstead, 991 students tested in grades 3-8 scored at "Level 1" in English. That's the lowest level in the state's assessment system and is defined as well below proficient. Another 827 students scored partly proficient, while 663 scored proficient or better. 

Only 27% of Hempstead students tested passed English tests in the spring, compared with an Islandwide average of 52%.

Smaller classes, 1-on-1 instruction

At a Nov. 16 school board meeting, Hempstead administrators outlined plans for an academic turnaround that includes the use of smaller classes, one-on-one instruction and other changes. Administrators said progress would be gradual and spread over a number of years. 

The Hampstead school district's goal is to increase the number of students...

The Hampstead school district's goal is to increase the number of students scoring at grade level annually in state testing, said Gary Rush, Hempstead's interim assistant superintendent for curriculum. Credit: John Roca

A timetable was presented by Gary Rush, interim assistant superintendent for curriculum. As in other districts, Rush drew on data from the district's own privately purchased tests, as well as state assessments.

Rush said Hempstead's fall testing showed an uptick in scores at most grade levels. He added that the district's goal was to increase the number of students scoring at grade level annually. 

Olga Brown-Young, a board member, then pointed to a section of Rush's presentation, which noted that 25% of eighth-graders currently were at grade level in reading. 

"If you have only 25% of students, for example, in the eighth grade that are now on grade level, that means 75% are not," Brown said. She asked how fast the district planned to increase the numbers each year.

"Well, our goal is 5%," Rush replied. "Obviously, we're shooting for as much as we can. But we want to be somewhat realistic because we have some students with serious gaps."

At the end of the presentation, Brown said she remained hopeful. "I believe what we're on is the road to success," she said. 

" … we all are beginning to see, as emerging...

" … we all are beginning to see, as emerging progress of the students here in this school district after coming out of a very, very difficult time during COVID," said William Johnson, who has served as Hempstead's state-appointed monitor since June 2020. Credit: John Roca

Another endorsement came from William Johnson, who has served as Hempstead's state-appointed monitor since June 2020. Johnson is a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents and an expert on curriculum and testing. 

"You just heard Mr. Rush make a very, very good presentation on what he sees, and what we all are beginning to see, as emerging progress of the students here in this school district after coming out of a very, very difficult time during COVID," Johnson told the board. 

On previous occasions, Johnson and district administrators have pointed to progress in other areas, including a big increase in high school graduation rates. 

Well below proficient in math

In Wyandanch in Suffolk County, 608 students, or 57% of all those tested, scored well below proficient in math. Another 265 were partly proficient, while 188 were proficient or advanced.

Wyandanch's non-proficiency rate was the highest for any district on the Island. Wyandanch administrators have outlined plans for changes that include increasing the number of middle school students taking advanced courses in math and science.

Jarod Morris, president of Wyandanch's Board of Education, said COVID-19 was...

Jarod Morris, president of Wyandanch's Board of Education, said COVID-19 was largely responsible for low test scores in the. Wyandanch School District. Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Jarod Morris, president of Wyandanch's board, agreed with others that COVID was largely responsible for low scores. 

"I don't think my district should be held accountable for the scores," Morris said. "I think it should be used as a tool to determine where we are." 

Outside analysts pointed to student poverty rates, as well as COVID-19, as factors contributing to low scores in many districts. New York State reported, for example, that only 27.6% of students statewide who were economically disadvantaged passed its latest math tests, compared with 38.6% of all students. 

Experts noted that students from low-income households were less likely than middle-class students to have access to books at home and to reliable Wi-Fi service essential for remote instruction. 

Newsday looked at records for a dozen Long Island districts with the lowest scores. In all cases, those districts had larger-than-average percentages of students who were economically disadvantaged.

In Hempstead, 75% of students are economically disadvantaged, compared with an average 32% for Nassau County as a whole. In Wyandanch, the rate is 93%; the average for Suffolk County is 43%

The Education Trust-New York, a research and advocacy group headquartered in Manhattan, noted disparities in a recent report. 

"Students of color and those from low-income backgrounds were suffering from deep inequities and opportunity gaps even before the pandemic, and these same students were disproportionately impacted by school closures and prolonged remote instruction," the trust concluded.

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