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State: 15 LI districts, 34 schools need improvement

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia speaks to members

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia speaks to members of the state Board of Regents as they discuss the federal Every Student Succeeds Act during a June 11 meeting in Albany. Credit: Hans Pennink/Hans Pennink

Fifteen school districts and 34 individual schools on Long Island were rated Thursday by the state as needing academic improvement under a new system — required by federal education law — that for the first time takes into account the number of students who boycott state tests.

Statewide, the low-performance list includes 106 districts and 370 schools, the state Education Department announced.  

On the Island, the new list ranged geographically from Freeport, Roosevelt and Farmingdale in Nassau County to Brentwood, Middle Country and Greenport in Suffolk County, among others. Designated districts included some that have generally maintained good academic standing in the past, as well as those that have consistently struggled.

State education officials said their prime objective over the next two years will be to help districts and schools improve performance. Officials added that they would distribute up to $80 million in federal assistance to help localities plan for upgrades.

Districts were advised in advance of the state's ratings and given a chance to appeal. 

"Our accountability system is not designed to name and blame schools," Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said during a teleconference Thursday with reporters. "We know how hard educators in these schools are working."

Locally, some school administrators voiced frustration with the designations, especially in cases where numerical counts related to test boycotts may have played a role. Administrators said they had little or no control over parents' decisions to pull their children out of the standardized tests; the volume of opt-outs in recent years has affected participation in English and math exams given to students in grades three through eight.

"I think it's an unfair designation, because if more of our kids were taking the test, it would not be a concern," said Roberta Gerold, superintendent of Middle Country schools, one of the systems designated as a "Target District."

Thursday's announcement marked the latest in a decades-long effort by federal and state authorities to identify schools with the lowest academic achievement and to require accountability. A series of federal laws has required identification of at least the bottom 5 percent of schools in each state.  

"Needless to say, the opt-out movement on the Island is a contributing factor to these unfair designations," said Kishore Kuncham, the schools chief in Freeport, which is another system newly identified as a Target District. 

Kuncham said he was especially disheartened that school classifications appeared to be "decided almost entirely by results on state tests." State officials insisted the new rating system draws on a far wider range of criteria than that used before.

While at least 11 districts on the Island lost their ratings of academic "Good Standing," Westbury saw that status restored.  

"We are extremely excited, and we're looking forward to having even higher-achieving schools," Superintendent Eudes Budhai said.

Performance has improved at the district's middle school, where students are encouraged to take high-school-level Regents exams in math, science and history, Budhai added. 

Over the years, New York State has applied numerous and shifting designations to low-performing campuses: "Schools Under Registration Review," "Priority Schools," "Focus Schools," "Persistently Struggling Schools," and "Struggling Schools."

In this latest round, Albany has borrowed federal nomenclature and created two new categories: Comprehensive Support and Improvement schools, or CSI, required to make the most sweeping improvements, and Targeted Support and Improvement schools, or TSI, where narrower improvements are required.

State officials predicted a big increase next year in the number of schools classified as TSI, because the rules require two years of low performance before that rating applies. 

Classifications are spelled out in the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was passed by Congress in 2015 with bipartisan support, replacing the No Child Left Behind Act from 2001. New York's plan for carrying out the law was approved by Washington a year ago. 

New York education officials like to point out that their current plan broadens the criteria under which schools will be ranked academically and then categorized. 

Under the old system, schools were judged mainly by their students' scores on state English Language Arts and math tests and, at the high school level, by graduation rates. Any high school with a rate below 67 percent is considered failing.

The new ratings factor in new criteria. Those indicators include chronic student absenteeism, English proficiency, success in advanced courses and readiness for college, careers and civic participation. 

One addition has generated particular controversy. It's a complex formula that calculates lower academic weightings for schools where large numbers of parents opt their children out of state tests. In effect, the formula complies with a long-standing federal requirement that at least 95 percent of students participate in state English and math tests each year. 

The change has especially raised objections on Long Island, which has the highest opt-out rates in the state. More than 90,000 students in grades three through eight across Nassau and Suffolk counties refused to take the state's English test in April, representing nearly 50 percent of those eligible, according to Newsday surveys.

State Education Department officials have tried to offer reassurances that no school where test scores are above the state average will get an unfavorable rating because of high opt-out rates alone. However, that leaves uncertainty for the other half of schools in the state that rank even slightly below average.  

Earlier this month, the superintendent of Island Park schools, Rosmarie Bovino, posted a letter on the district's website advising residents that the local middle school was in danger of being placed on the state's CSI list. Bovino attributed that to the school's high test-boycott rate, among other factors, adding that some local parents had voiced "outrage" over the new accountability system. 

Island Park appealed the potential low rating to the Education Department and the district on Thursday was reported by the state to be in good academic standing, based on the commissioner's finding of extenuating circumstances. 

Test boycotts are not a phenomenon on the Island alone. A recent Newsday review found that 85 percent of school districts statewide — 612 of 718 — fell short of the federal requirement of 95 percent test participation. 

The new state ratings

The state Education Department, following federal law, established new categories designating schools and districts that require academic improvement.

Comprehensive Support and Improvement schools (CSI) — These schools rank in the bottom 5 percent statewide, based on student test scores and other criteria, and will be identified at least every three years. High schools are placed in this category if they have graduation rates of less than 67 percent.

Targeted Support and Improvement schools (TSI)  — These schools deal with more limited problems — namely, low achievement among certain subgroups of students, such as those who are disabled or economically disadvantaged. Schools in this category are named annually. 

Target Districts (TD) — These districts either contain one or more CSI or TSI schools, or the district was identified as a "Focus" district last school year and one or more subgroups of students districtwide performed at the level comparable to that of a CSI or TSI school. Districts are named annually. 

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