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State reports on LI schools: Advanced diplomas, test scores rise

A student solves a geometry problem during Susan

A student solves a geometry problem during Susan Marc's Regents geometry class at John F. Kennedy High School in Plainview, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Long Island’s class of 2017 earned more advanced diplomas than previous waves of high school graduates, while local school districts also posted modest gains on a controversial Common Core geometry exam, the state reported Thursday.

Annual school “report cards” released by the state Education Department show that 56.4 percent of seniors in Nassau and Suffolk counties received Regents diplomas with an advanced designation during the 2016-17 school year. Statewide 38.1 percent of students received those diplomas.

Both figures were up from 53.3 percent and 36 percent, respectively, recorded in 2015-16.

Islandwide, 71.8 percent of high school students taking a Regents Common Core geometry exam earned passing marks last year, compared with 70.8 percent the previous year. State rates were 63.4 percent and 62.8 percent, respectively.

“It’s really a credit to our teachers, who are becoming more familiar with a curriculum and preparing our students to rise to a new standard,” said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools and a state-level leader on curriculum issues.

The state’s report cards provide a wealth of data on local schools ranging from breakdowns of student populations by economic and academic status, to high school graduation and college-enrollment rates. Data can be found in Newsday’s accompanying chart and at newsday.com, and at the education department’s public online site at data.nysed.gov.

Advanced Regents diplomas are regarded as an important indicator of educational quality, because recipients generally are considered well-prepared for college. To earn such credentials, students must go beyond the basic requirements for Regents diplomas, such as taking introductory algebra, by completing courses in more advanced subjects including geometry and trigonometry.

The latest report cards, while showing progress in that area, also reveal a continuing disparity between the performance of affluent districts and those with large pockets of poverty. More than 80 percent of students are awarded advanced diplomas in Jericho, Manhasset and East Williston, for example, while the rate is 9.1 percent in Roosevelt and 5.6 percent in Wyandanch.

Mary Jones, superintendent of Wyandanch schools, said that her 2,570-student district is on the right path, having recently received official notice that its LaFrancis Hardiman School has been released from one of the state’s “needs improvement” lists and restored to good academic standing. In addition, the state data released Thursday showed the district improved to a 39.8 percent passing rate on the geometry test, up from 31.3 in 2016.

“I think we’ve come a long way the past several years,” Jones said. “But at the same time, we have to take into consideration that our financial limits do not allow us to bring in some of the advanced programs we need.”

The Regents geometry exam is one obstacle encountered by many students in seeking advanced diplomas.

A new version, based on more challenging national Common Core standards, was introduced in 2015, as an older test was phased out. On the Island, passage rates dropped from more than 80 percent to less than 70 percent on the newer exam.

Since then, rates have begun inching up again, but they are still below 75 percent. Moreover, the proportion of students achieving what is often considered “mastery” level — equivalent to scores of 85 or better — has dropped from more than 30 percent to less than 20 percent.

Superintendent Lewis of Plainview-Old Bethpage, who co-chairs a curriculum committee for the State Council of School Superintendents, said a decline of this sort can be especially frustrating for motivated students accustomed to receiving high marks and intent on entering competitive colleges.

“If you think about it, you’re sending a transcript off to college, and that Regents exam is a final exam that must appear on your transcript,” Lewis explained. “Let’s say you’ve got another student in New Jersey, whose score on a different kind of test might be 90. So we’re putting our high-end students at a disadvantage.”

The gradual improvement in passage rates on some Regents exams does suggest, however, that classrooms are becoming accustomed to Common Core standards, which have been in effect at some grade levels since 2012.

The state’s policymaking Board of Regents voted in September to revise those guidelines and rename them Next Generation Learning Standards, in response to protests by teachers and parents and test boycotts in grades three through eight. But the Common Core name lives on, because new exams such as the geometry assessment were written before standards revisions were approved.

Most educators expect further gains ahead. “As the old saying goes, time heals all wounds,” said Charles Russo, superintendent of East Moriches schools and a former president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

With Michael Ebert

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