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Analysis: More than 60% of LI students who took ELAs in grades 3-8 were proficient or advanced

Rhonda Taylor, Uniondale's assistant superintendent for Curriculum and

Rhonda Taylor, Uniondale's assistant superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, interacts with students on an educators' tour of California Avenue School on Nov. 19. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

More than 60% of 83,401 Long Island students tested in English Language Arts last spring passed with scores in the proficient or advanced range, a Newsday analysis found.

Test results covered grades 3-8, and were the first released by the state Department of Education since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Meanwhile, for students who tested poorly, policy analysts are questioning whether a massive infusion of federal school aid is effectively being channeled to them.

WHAT TO KNOW

A total of 51,991 Long Island students who participated in the latest round of grade 3-8 English tests passed with scores in the proficient or advanced range, state records show.

Another 31,379 students failed to meet state standards, with scores of partly proficient or well below proficient.

Independent analysts warn the state could lose a chance to bring failing students up to speed if it doesn’t do a better job of tracking the use of federal financial aid meant to help them.

Newsday examined English scores for students in 123 Island districts. A total 192,905 students are enrolled in grades 3-8 throughout the region, but about 57% did not take April's tests.

Assessments were conducted under extraordinary conditions, including exemptions for students instructed remotely at home and those opted out by parents. Results were released Oct. 28 by Education Commissioner Betty A. Rosa, who cautioned against comparing the statewide outcomes against those from previous years.

Rosa noted that only 40% of students participated in testing across the state, as opposed to 80% in earlier years. On the Island, participation has run closer to 50% in the recent past, due to the region's widespread opt-out movement. Tests were not administered last year, due to the pandemic.

Nonetheless, Rosa added in a newsletter later that results can "provide valuable information to parents and families about their child's understanding of the state learning standards."

Dia Bryant, executive director of Education Trust-New York, a Manhattan-based research and advocacy group, said the data, coupled with the federal school aid, offered a chance for transformative change. Bryant, in a statement, declared that "we still have an opportunity to address historical inequities that have long impacted the lives of students of color, students with disabilities, multilingual learners and students from low-income backgrounds throughout the state."

Results follow predictable pattern

The state's testing scoring system uses a numerical scale ranging from 1 to 4, with 4 being the highest mark.

A total 51,991 students in the Nassau-Suffolk region — about 62% of those taking the tests — earned scores of 3 or 4, signifying they were proficient or advanced, respectively. Another 18,312 students, or about 22%, scored 2, meaning they were only partly proficient. A third group, consisting of 13,067 students, or about 16%, scored 1, indicating they were well below proficiency.

Tests reflect state-adopted standards. In grades 4 and 5, for example, students proficient in English would be expected to understand literature on the level of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," by author Lewis Carrol.

Generally, scoring results followed a predictable pattern, with districts enrolling large numbers of impoverished students reporting the highest number of test failures. For example, of 1,854 students tested in Hempstead, 575, or 31%, scored proficient or advanced; 517, or about 28%, partly proficient; and 762, or about 41%, nonproficient.

In recent weeks, a growing number of policy experts have contended the state could lose an opportunity to help the students scoring poorly — unless it keeps better track of federal aid money earmarked for them. Last spring, an unprecedented amount of federal dollars were allotted for schools, including more than $850 million for the Nassau-Suffolk region, according to legislative records.

Family poverty has been cited as a key reason for poor achievement, especially during the pandemic. In part, this stems from the fact that such families often lack reliable Wi-Fi needed for computerized instruction.

Sylvia King-Cohen, a spokesperson for the Hempstead district, described test results as a "way to shine the light on the gross inequities of opportunity across Long Island."

"Students in Hempstead were severely impacted by the pandemic, as were most communities of color," King-Cohen said. "Until we are assured an equal playing field for all students in this pandemic-driven environment, there can be no rationale for explaining the ranking for achievement through one day of testing."

Patrick Orecki, director of state studies for the Citizens Budget Commission, recently characterized aid allotments as a sort of "fiscal ribbon-cutting" — that is, promises of progress without tangible results.

"New York State should ensure that this massive school funding increase drives results," Orecki said in Oct. 5 testimony before a State Senate committee. He spoke on behalf of his nonpartisan advocacy group, which has offices in Albany and Manhattan.

Teacher union leaders at national, state and local levels contend that federal relief money has been used effectively in aiding students and improving school infrastructure.

On Nov. 19, Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, underlined this point in a three-hour visit to Uniondale schools. Officials in that district, where about 68% of students are considered economically disadvantaged, said federal funds are supporting after-school tutoring and Saturday counseling sessions, as well as Wi-Fi upgrades and more than $2 million in school ventilation improvements.

"We fought hard to get those funds," Pringle said during a brief news conference.

NEA is the nation's largest educators' union, with more than 3 million members.

Addie Blanco-Harvey, Uniondale's school board president, who accompanied Pringle, told Newsday that federal money has been especially helpful in supporting extended-day programs for students that start as early as 7:10 a.m. Blanco-Harvey's own daughter, a third-grader, attends before- or after-school in subjects such as Spanish literacy, chorus and nutrition five days a week.

"The parent can go to work without worrying, 'I have to wait till 8 in the morning to drop my children off,' " said Blanco-Harvey, the first Hispanic to serve as Uniondale's board president.

State: Two-day testing returning

The latest tests took only one day to administer in English, and another day in math, and answers were all multiple-choice. Tests in previous years required two days for each subject, and writing exercises were included. Officials said they would return to normal two-day testing schedules next spring.

Throughout the country, school districts apply through state authorities for their share of federal dollars. Federal guidelines spell out in some detail how money is to be spent, including a requirement that at least 20% of the money be used to counter students' "learning loss."

Emily DeSantis, chief spokesperson for the state Education Department, told Newsday her agency "has systems in place" to approve and track school district spending of federal funds. Department officials added they were reviewing more than 1,000 district applications for funding, including the millions of dollars earmarked for combating "learning loss," and expected to announce approvals early next year.

The department also is reporting back to Washington on federal money spent so far. Another agency, the state Comptroller's Office, calculates that more than $1 billion in federal relief money for schools had been spent statewide as of Oct. 31.

Details are lacking, however.

DeSantis on Nov. 15 acknowledged her agency's reports to Washington so far have lumped expenditures in a category labeled "other," rather than broken down for specific purposes such as "technology" or "sanitation." DeSantis said this was done because Washington had not yet finalized reporting requirements.

ProPublica, a nonprofit online news site, recently analyzed reporting by states nationwide, including New York, and found that just over half of $3 billion in federal aid spent so far was categorized as "other." ProPublica concluded this provided "no insight into how the funds were allocated."

At the local level, many Island school administrators report that federal money is having a positive impact.

In the William Floyd district, Superintendent Kevin Coster said teachers are being paid extra this year through federal funding to tutor small groups of three to five students who need extra help. Teachers give up lunch and other free periods to do this work.

In addition, the system has hired eight additional psychologists, social workers and guidance counselors at a cost of about $110,000 each in salary and benefits to help students cope with pandemic stresses, the schools chief said.

"We're very grateful," Coster said of the federal assistance.

Deborah Wortham, the superintendent in Roosevelt, said federal money helped pay for a program last summer that enrolled about 200 students and revolved around preparation for health careers. Students learned about anatomy and other medically related subjects, while also picking up new vocabulary terms.

"A third-grader told me about the functions of the liver, and I've drunk more water ever since," Wortham said.

In Brentwood, the Island's largest district, with more than 18,000 students, each school has been allotted enough federal aid to pay for 450 hours of extended instruction. Superintendent Richard Loeschner said the program began last month and provides two to three additional hours of daily lessons, four days a week.

Brentwood also is offering five days of Saturday instruction this fall and will do so again in the spring. Like many districts on the Island, Brentwood pays for its own commercial tests that are administered three times a year in grades K-8 and help identify students in need of additional academic time.

"Honestly, here in Brentwood we're not spending a lot of time on last year's test results," Loeschner said. "We know from internal testing, from our own data collection, what students' strengths and weaknesses are."

Scores have fallen nationally

Nationally, there are signs the pandemic may have hurt student performance. Last month, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal agency that tracks achievement, reported that average reading and math scores for 13-year-olds dropped in 2020. Among the bottom 10% of students, scores fell for both 13-year-olds and 9-year-olds.

Bryant, of the Education Trust-New York, said the state can help struggling students by tracking schools' use of federal money to improve academic skills. This requires attention to detail.

For example, Bryant added, districts often can use results from their own internal testing to see if students have mastered a particular skill — say, the ability to write a persuasive opinion article. If not, tutors can be hired to train students in that area.

Bryant went on to compliment state education officials for their decision to resume normal testing in the spring. Education Trust reported, however, that it had seen no specific state plans for tracking schools' use of aid money.

The trust group focuses on equity issues, especially the needs of students of color who are poor.

Bryant said she and colleagues "look forward to learning more about how the state will hold districts accountable for using new financial resources to narrow and close the opportunity gaps that have long persisted in our school system."

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