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Long IslandEducation

More LI schools on new state watch list than last year

Elizabeth Mellick Baker School is located at 69

Elizabeth Mellick Baker School is located at 69 Baker Hill Rd. in Great Neck. (Aug. 16, 2012) Credit: Brittany Wait

A total of 49 schools in 38 districts across Nassau and Suffolk counties -- with an increased number of those in top-rated districts -- are named this year on a just-released state Education Department watch list because of unsatisfactory academic achievement.

Elementary schools in such districts as East Williston, Great Neck, Half Hollow Hills, Locust Valley, Port Washington and Roslyn are among dozens on the state agency's list of "Local Assistance Plan" schools for 2014-15. The number of schools on that list is up from 34 in 23 of the Island's 124 districts at this time last year.

The Education Department designation is equivalent to a warning that these schools must show improvement in student test scores -- at least among some groups, such as those with disabilities or those not fluent in English.

Elizabeth Mellick Baker Elementary School in Great Neck was added to the list this year. Great Neck last year had a different elementary school on the roster -- John F. Kennedy School -- but it was removed from this year's list.

Some district officials minimized the new listings as little more than statistical aberrations involving relatively small numbers of students. Local officials contended the designations are unfair because they do not present a full picture of their students' achievement and honed in on certain groups in elementary-school grades, such as special education students, who struggled with tougher state tests based on the Common Core academic standards.

Reward-list schools

Those administrators, pointing to quirks in the Education Department's rating system, also noted that most of their systems also have schools on the agency's "Reward" list, which honors schools whose students show high achievement or rapid improvement.

Half Hollow Hills, for example, has four schools on the Reward list; Great Neck and Port Washington each have three.

"This is that pseudo-scientific approach to education that says, if it has a number attached to it, it must have validity," said Anna Hunderfund, superintendent of the Locust Valley district. "It's nothing but malarkey."

Locust Valley Intermediate School was newly identified this year as requiring local assistance to boost test scores. Locust Valley High School, on the other hand, has appeared on the state's Reward list for two years running.

"A single number doesn't describe a school," said Roslyn Superintendent Dan Brenner. "That doesn't tell you anything about my art program. It doesn't tell you about my marching band or any of the other rich programs that make Long Island schools the wonderful places that they are."

Roslyn's Harbor Hill School Elementary School is on the newly released Local Assistance Plan list.

State education officials said last week that most such schools had special education students who either did not show adequate academic progress over the year or were deemed to be lagging too far behind non-disabled classmates academically.

They also said the listings are not meant to place a stigma on the schools. Last month, an Education Department news release recognized 354 Reward schools statewide without mentioning 319 Local Assistance Plan schools.

"This is sort of the lightest touch that we have," said Ira Schwartz, the state's assistant education commissioner for academic accountability.

Ratings categories

New York's ratings for schools -- known as an accountability system -- fall into five categories.

Schools with test results in the lowest 5 percent statewide are deemed "Priority" and those in the next-lowest tier are called "Focus." Schools in those categories face potential penalties if they don't improve, including reallocation of part of their federal aid to private tutoring firms.

Twenty Priority and Focus schools in six Long Island districts are listed this year, a decline of two schools from last year.

Local Assistance Plan schools face no penalties, but their districts must try to help them meet academic targets and inform residents of improvement plans. Schools in "Good Standing" are meeting state criteria for adequate performance. Reward-list schools get state certificates and, in some cases, have an edge in applying for state financial grants.

Many districts with schools on the watch list are nationally competitive. Locust Valley High School, for example, was No. 95 in this year's Washington Post rankings of highest-achieving high schools across the country.

School administrators on the Island acknowledged that Local Assistance Plan postings were due mostly to test-score problems among special education students. But many of those administrators questioned federal and state rules requiring rigorous new Common Core tests in grades 3-5 to be administered to students in special education.

"Are they the right measures for children with disabilities?" said Wafa Westervelt, an assistant superintendent in Port Washington.

This year's list of schools with unsatisfactory records could have been far longer.

The landmark No Child Left Behind law, signed by former President George W. Bush in 2002, originally required virtually all schoolchildren nationwide to make continuous academic progress and reach academic "proficiency" by the end of the 2013-14 school year. One idea behind the law was to prevent schools from overlooking students with particular needs, including those in special education.

Most academic experts considered that goal highly unrealistic, and some analysts calculated that the law, left unchanged, would have caused more than 80 percent of the nation's public schools to be cited for noncompliance.

To avoid that, President Barack Obama's administration in 2012 granted New York and other states waivers from what were regarded as the law's more unrealistic requirements. The administration initially pushed for overhaul of the law itself, but Congress could not agree on revisions.

Stopgap measures

Many education leaders have praised the administration's actions, though they have added that the waivers are just stopgap measures.

"I think without the waivers we'd have many, many more schools listed," said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the Albany-based New York State Council of School Superintendents. "So that is an undisputed benefit."

A bright spot in the current ratings system is the designation of Reward-list schools. There are 99 schools in 52 districts on the Island this year, a slight decline from 109 in 53 districts last year.

Sayville High School is among those that have appeared on the Reward list two years in a row. Another Sayville school, Lincoln Avenue Elementary, appeared on this year's Local Assistance Plan list.

Sayville Superintendent Walter Schartner said the high school's listing is most significant because it reflects the cumulative result of students' work throughout 13 years of education.

"Having a successful high school is really a tribute to teachers in kindergarten through 12th grade," Schartner said. "I'm very proud."

With Michael R. Ebert

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