The state should make better use of the voluminous data...

The state should make better use of the voluminous data it collects on schools and districts. Credit: Getty Images/skynesher

As Long Island students return to school this week, their teachers face the enormous task of continuing to close achievement gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic while addressing the extensive social and emotional issues that remain.

The mix of academic challenges and increased mental health concerns creates a complicated stew for educators. But the problems vary district to district — as do the solutions. One example: the state's effort to rate and classify schools and school districts after a three-year pandemic-related hiatus. While a restart is welcome, the process must be more thoughtful and nuanced to succeed.

The new classifications, part of the state's response to a federal requirement, designate 16 schools and 13 school districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties as needing improvement. The goal, according to state Education Department officials, is to establish a better system of accountability that identifies growth opportunities and areas for improvement for all schools, allowing them to better allocate resources and funding. The officials rightly point out that "improvement is an ongoing, never-ending thing," a standard on which every school should be evaluated. Since the state is in the midst of a two-year transition plan, the system is still a work in progress. 

The state has the right idea, but the classification system doesn't yet seem designed to achieve its goals. It's a bureaucratic alphabet soup of designations from "CSI" to "ATSI" — variations on the need for "support and improvement" — making it nearly impossible to assess a school's needs based on its label and by painting some districts with a broad brush. Parents, staff and communities cannot readily understand a label such as "Comprehensive Support and Improvement" or "Additional Targeted Support and Improvement" or the reasons behind it.

The state should build more subtlety and detail into its system. That starts with better using the data state officials collect on schools and districts. The labels need more specific information. Is a school in need of increased support because it has a significant population of students who aren't native-born English speakers, or students who are severely behind due to COVID-19 interruptions? Are other factors at work, such as hunger or homelessness?

Every school has a story to tell. With nuanced categorization, underlying data and individual attention, the state can better target resources to each school and district. That's not about funding levels; school spending on Long Island will reach a staggering $36,105 per student this year. It's about where the money goes and whether a school is using those funds well.

As the school year gets underway, addressing Long Island students' varied and distinctive needs remains paramount. But without real accountability and the clear classifications, metrics and goals that come with that, those students will be left behind.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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