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Give NY State’s new school evaluations a serious look

The New York State Education Department identified 15

The New York State Education Department identified 15 Long Island school districts as "target districts" and said 34 schools within them need academic improvement. Credit: iStock

The New York State Education Department identified 15 Long Island school districts as “target districts” Thursday because 34 schools within them were found to need academic improvement under its new assessment system.

The goal of the new assessments, spurred by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act passed in 2015, is to identify the bottom 5 percent of New York schools to help them. Over time, the state will identify highly successful schools as well. This year’s unsettling results, though, are raising groundless alarms from districts where officials claim they are being penalized because too many students refused to take standardized tests, and from teachers unions with the same bias.

The rules, however, are that those districts with poor participation can be penalized only if the results of their students who actually do take the tests fall below the state average.

Some of the Long Island districts and schools found to have substandard results have been identified before under the previous assessment systems. But other target districts and troubled schools identified this time were an unpleasant surprise.

The target districts are Farmingdale, Freeport, Hempstead, Roosevelt, Amityville, Brentwood, Central Islip, Greenport, Longwood, Middle Country, Patchogue-Medford, Riverhead, Sachem, South Country and Wyandanch.

Evaluating districts, schools, teachers and students fairly is a complex process. Having testing data is always better than having no objective data at all, but such information is far from definitive, especially for small groups. The larger the group evaluated, though, as with full schools, the more testing data reveal.

The attempt to find an acceptable, rigorous way to assess the success of public school students and teachers in New York has been a disaster for at least a decade, and the state had to put a moratorium on the method of evaluating teachers required by state law. Parents and teachers protested a system they felt put too much emphasis on standardized tests. Fifty percent of third- through eighth-graders on Long Island don’t take the annual state English and math tests mandated by federal law.

So now there is a new system of assessing schools and districts that looks beyond basic test scores to consider chronic absenteeism, English proficiency among new learners, success in advanced courses and readiness for college, careers and civic engagement — and it, too, is under attack.

The vast majority of schools with sky-high opt-out rates were not found wanting in this assessment, so a systemic bias against opt-outs is not a strong excuse for those that fell short. The new rating system, while likely to need tinkering, was developed over two years with input from stakeholders in the state, and it seems to be valid.

Many educators and parents may look at this list of schools and districts and decide, once again, to devote their energy to fighting to remove standards. Instead, we ought to give the system time to work and devote that same energy to helping the schools it identifies overcome the difficult challenges they face. — The editorial board