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Glen Cove in shock over testing allegations

Jessica Brondo, a former star student at Glen Cove High School who now lives in Manhattan, was on a subway checking her cellphone Friday when she saw the news flash about her hometown school district.

What she read next, Brondo said, made her question whether New York State is placing too much emphasis on student testing.

Eighteen teachers at Glen Cove's Connolly and Landing elementary schools were alleged to have improperly coached students during state testing last spring. An investigation was under way, officials were quoted as saying.

"For me, it was really shocking, because all the teachers I knew were focused on integrity," said Brondo, 30. She graduated from the high school in 2000, then attended Princeton University before establishing a private college-counseling service.

Brondo credits a high-school business club for helping hone her entrepreneurial skills. "I loved my time there, and I don't love hearing bad things about it," she said, adding, "I hope we can learn from this, and do something to address the bigger [testing] issues."

It's no secret that test pressures are mounting on Long Island and across the country, and that schools from Atlanta to Los Angeles have felt the sting of cheating scandals. New York State officials say that more rigorous testing, scheduled to start Tuesday, is intended to reinforce higher academic standards.

Even so, many fans of the 3,100-student Glen Cove school district expressed surprise over the allegations of misconduct, mixed with doubt about testing procedures. One reason for their reaction: The Landing school was honored with a federal "blue ribbon" for improved academic achievement a little over two years ago.

Glen Cove's superintendent, Joseph Laria -- one of the Island's longest-serving school administrators -- expressed "great disappointment" last week as he announced the investigation on the district's website.

Glen Cove is a tight-knit North Shore city, and its schools are among the Island's most diverse -- a point of local pride. It's the sort of place where students from leafy neighborhoods rub shoulders with classmates from subsidized housing complexes.

The schools face their share of academic challenges, to be expected in a system where nearly two students out of every five qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches due to modest family incomes.

Still, Glen Cove holds its own, scholastically speaking.

Forty-three percent of high school graduates here earned advanced Regents diplomas in 2011, the latest year for which statistics are available. That's 12 points higher than the statewide average, though somewhat below the midpoint for Nassau County.

Like most neighboring districts, Glen Cove offers a wealth of student activities, including three television studios and a select chorale that recently performed at Citi Field in Flushing. Advanced course offerings are ample; Brondo completed six college-level AP courses before going on to Princeton.

Chris Barry, 44, who teaches media communications at the high school, said he has been contacted in the past two months by representatives of three other districts, all asking to visit his TV studio. Visitors clearly consider Glen Cove's operations a model, he said.

All the more reason that Barry, a Glen Cove resident for 14 years, was dismayed by last week's revelations.

"You know, it's disheartening to say the least," Barry said. "I just hope everything is conducted fairly. I live here, too. There's a close-knit feeling to the place."

Even some persistent critics of the district have concluded that Glen Cove's troubles might be largely due to forces beyond its control. Rick Smith, owner of the Piano Exchange, a landmark local business, questioned New York State's new teacher-evaluation system, which assigns job ratings based partly on student test scores.

Supporters of the new system, including education aides to President Barack Obama, contend it is far superior to New York's old approach to evaluations, which banned any consideration of student performance.

But Smith, in an interview, suggested that it may be better to simply use student scores to diagnose instructional weaknesses and correct them, rather than for ratings that could cost teachers their jobs. The store owner also is a local taxpayer activist who has frequently criticized district spending policies in the past.

"If you create tests upon which a teacher's prestige and pay rest, then isn't it in the teacher's interest to inflate the grades?" he said.

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