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Suffolk County's troubling school-test gap

A fifth grader at Longwood Middle School in

A fifth grader at Longwood Middle School in Middle Island takes the NY State math test on May 2, 2017. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

The economic vitality and desirability of modern-day Long Island were built largely on its vaunted public schools, and they continue to be a primary attraction.

The superiority of the Island’s schools over those in New York City that so many Long Islanders fled, and others across the state against which we measure our districts, remains the key building block of the region. It’s also the main reason residents accept housing prices more than double the national average and property taxes about four times the national average.

And if you compare the entirety of Long Island’s schools with statewide or New York City test averages, this region still leads — though not by as much as many would guess. But if you evaluate the test scores by county, the results are very different.

Taken as a group, based on the math and English tests given this past spring in grades three through eight, Suffolk County schools trail the statewide and New York City averages across nearly all lines of race, ethnicity and district wealth.

Nassau’s results, on the other hand, easily eclipse the statewide averages, New York City figures, and results for comparable counties like Westchester.

In Suffolk, 42 percent of students tested proficient in English last spring, meaning they got a 3 or 4 on the tests on a scale of 1 to 4, and 44 percent tested proficient in math. For the state, the averages were 45 percent in English and 47 percent in math. In New York City, the tallies were 47 percent in English and 46 percent in math.

Nassau’s results blew those scores away, with 59 percent proficiency in English and 63 percent in math, exceeding even Westchester’s 53 percent in English and 55 percent in math.

Finding answers to why Suffolk has fallen behind state and New York City averages is going to be complicated and difficult. Reversing the poor results will likely be even harder. But the data make it clear that Suffolk is lagging by nearly every metric, and that the lackluster results mostly cannot be blamed on the county’s sky-high opt-out rates, the one area where Suffolk does lead the state. Whether the focus on education policy among parents and teachers in Suffolk County and the battle over teacher evaluations and testing have detracted from efforts to actually teach children, though, is harder to say.

The statewide opt-out rate this year was 16 percent, compared with 55 percent in Suffolk and just under 40 percent in Nassau, and so many students skipping the tests can and does skew data. Opting out is largely a white phenomenon, and is generally most widespread in districts with average or above-average wealth. That, along with a recent influx of Hispanics,  many newly arrived in this country, has an effect on the county’s results. Nassau’’s own influx of Hispanics has not hurt its stellar results, however, nor has Westchester’s, and Suffolk’s shortcomings are largely consistent regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or wealth.

The test scores reveal these findings:

— Just 30 percent of Suffolk County’s black students tested proficient in English, but 35 percent did in New York City. The 69 percent of Asian students testing proficient in math in Suffolk County sounds strong, but 73 percent of Asians hit the mark statewide. White students in Suffolk managed 55 percent proficiency in English, compared to 67 percent in New York City, and 60 percent in math, compared to 67 percent in the five boroughs. Hispanic students in Suffolk were deemed proficient in English 28 percent of the time, compared to 36 percent statewide and 37 percent in the city,

— Suffolk County’s high-needs districts, ones where poverty is prevalent, averaged 28 percent proficiency in math, compared to 31 percent in high-needs districts statewide and 33 percent in Nassau. Suffolk County’s average-needs districts averaged 41 percent proficiency in math, compared to 49 percent statewide and 56 percent in Nassau. And Suffolk County’s low-needs, wealthier districts averaged 62 percent proficiency in math, compared to 69 percent statewide and 74 percent in Nassau.

Identifying subject areas in which students are struggling is one of the key uses of these mandated state tests. They help track, for instance, the achievement gaps between black, Hispanic and lower-income students, and higher achieving white, Asian and wealthy populations over time. The 2019 data shows these gaps are slowly shrinking.

Suffolk’s disappointing results aren’t the only warning from this year’s data. The testing data also show female students’ English proficiency at 51 percent statewide, 11 points higher than for boys. This, too, demands attention.

The shortcoming in Suffolk’s scores, though, flies in the face of the county’s reputation as a center of educational excellence. Its education results are below the state and New York City averages, and that’s a crisis that needs to be recognized and addressed lest current and potential residents decide they’re not willing to buy high-priced real estate and pay towering property taxes in return for substandard schools.

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