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State Test Scores Reveal Some Gains, Widening Achievement Gap

Budget cuts cost New Jersey school districts $1 billion, with some of the poorest districts paying the biggest price.

The annual release of New Jersey school test scores can be maddening in its mixed messages.

On the one hand, the 2010-2011 scores released Wednesday rose slightly or at least held steady overall in a majority of grades, a good thing for what have been tough times. In math, there were some notable gains for any given year.

On the other, state officials are quick to point out that the gaps in achievement between rich and poor, white and minority, are wide and in some instances widening alarmingly.

Those results are unsurprising, insofar as they reflect nationwide trends. But the findings have taken on added weight under Gov. Chris Christie and his education reform agenda, much of it aimed at districts where the achievement is lowest.

How the numbers all add up is still to be determined, but there were lessons to be learned at yesterday's state Board of Education's meeting, as well as considerable talk as to what lies ahead.

Lesson No. 1: In tough times, New Jersey kids rose to the challenge

The 2010-2011 school year was no joy ride.

Not only was the state still gripped by the Great Recession -- putting enormous pressure on schools and families -- but also districts lost close to $1 billion in state aid, forcing cuts and layoffs at a level previously unseen. A report by the New York Federal Reserve Bank, released yesterday, found some of the steepest cuts in some of the state's poorest districts.

Given that situation, it wouldn’t have been a big surprise if overall achievement levels had dropped. They didn't

Compiling all student scores in math and language arts for the first time revealed that 89.6 percent of high school students passed the state's math test on the first try, while 75 percent did the same for language arts. Those percentages show small but significant increases on tests that typically don't show much change.

In the elementary and middle schools, 75 percent passed math on the first try; 66 percent passed language arts. Those results remain largely unchanged, but individual grades showed some promise. Reading scores rose in the critical third and fourth grades, but dropped in Grades 7 and 8. It was better news in math, where there were consistent gains.

"At all grade levels, we are seeing positive and significant increases," said assistant commissioner Bari Erlichson, who presented the findings.

The one real blemish on the overall scores? The results for the state's science exams, long seen as the easiest of the tests, with passing rates typically in the 80th and 90th percentiles. This time out, fourth grade results fell from 93 percent to 90 percent; in the eighth grade, they dropped from 83 percent to 81 percent.

The state's new high-school biology test, once seen as a possible graduation requirement but on hold for that purpose, saw a slight gain in 2011, but only 57 percent of students passed overall.

Lesson No. 2: Where the numbers get troubling -- and complicated

For every encouraging result, though, there is troubling evidence of children left behind, and in some cases falling even further behind.

Acting education commissioner Chris Cerf is adamant in highlighting the gaping chasm between low-income students and those not at an economic disadvantage -- rather than between white and Asian students vs. black and Hispanic.

In elementary school language arts, for instance, the gap between low-income students and everyone else is close to 30 percentage points, up from 26 points seven years ago. Among third graders in the state's poorest districts, barely 40 percent passed the state's reading and writing test.

"The bottom line is the achievement gap is wide throughout the state," said Arcelio Aponte, the state board's president. "Although maybe trending up in some cases, it's still a 30 percent gap. How could anyone find that acceptable?"

But there were some interesting exceptions, most noticeably in the high schools. In the last decade, the gap in language arts between low-income students and their peers has been nearly cut in half, to 12 points. A similar trend is evident between white and students as well.

With those gains come caveats. The High School Proficiency Assessment, the state's longest-running test, is drawing increasing criticism for not being very rigorous. State officials also pointed out that there is a "ceiling effect," in which wealthier students are passing at rates of 90 percent or above, limiting how much higher they can go.

Still, the test remains the standard that schools have followed for the past decade, and any sizable closing of the achievement gaps is reason for at least guarded optimism.

David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center in Newark and frequent antagonist of the Christie administration, said the high school trends were worth noting.

"There is no question there have been slow and steady increases, and this is another sign," he said. "But we also need a broader solution. We take these in a cautious and positive vein, but only redouble our efforts."

Lesson No. 3: The solutions are just as complicated

Click here to continue reading this article and learn more about Lesson No. 3

Howard L. Pearl February 03, 2012 at 01:40 PM
This article states clearly that low-income students perform at a substandard level. Again the Abbott decision is shown to be a total failure and poor legislation. Urban centers are dragging the averages down in spite of the fact that they receive the bulk of the state funding. Example: In Asbury Park, the cost per student is approximately double that of Fort Lee, but the achievement level is far below. Governor Christie was right on target when he stated “Those special 31 districts have gotten the lion’s share of the money over the last nearly three decades. And what are we getting in return?" The answer is continued failure, but at a higher price. It is time for Abbott to be overturned once and for all and for our legislators to finally realize that all problems cannot be solved by pouring money into them!
Zachary David February 03, 2012 at 02:02 PM
Is it possible that the money is indeed needed by the poorer districts but that they aren't spending it on the right things to close the achievement gap? So rather than claiming that since it isn't doing the poor districts any good, the money should be rellocated to wealthier districts, maybe we should be requiring that the techniques being used to close the gap change. The unspoken elephant in the room here is that the poorer districts are mostly minorities. Is anyone maintaining that since these kids have poorly educated parents, broken homes, and all the other effects of low socioeconomic status, that we should throw up our hands and keep the money for ourselves? I don't like throwing money away any more than anyone else, but this is a complex issue.
Howard L. Pearl February 03, 2012 at 02:40 PM
Zach: By your logic, the poor districts need money and, even though they do not spend it wisely, we should keep giving it to them in the hopes they will magically wake up and figure out how to spend it to benefit the students! Of course, your arguments of minority populations and poverty issues are valid and the issues are complex. But when a solution fails, the idea is to find one that works. Abbott is a blatant failure. In the interim, communities like Fort Lee are suffering from funding cuts from Trenton as a result of Abbott. This is not about greed, but rather about maintaining a high standard in those communities that have successful educational programs. Is the goal to raise the standard in Abbott communities or to lower the standards in the non-Abbott communities, because that is what is happening! Communities, such as Fort Lee, are relegated to using out-dated textbooks, converting closets into classrooms, having no funds for updated laboratory equipment, leaving buildings in disrepair. Why?! So our representatives can be politically correct and solicit more votes from urban minorities by channeling funds into those communities through Abbott!
Zachary David February 03, 2012 at 10:05 PM
Howard: my point was that we should not necessarily cut the funding to the neediest areas, but we should consider revising the rules around how the money must be spent so that it produces better results. Something needs to be done to end the cycle of despair that kids in the Abbott districts feel. We all suffer from this underclass of uneducated kids who grow up into adults who can't contribute effectively to society. Would you rather spend the money on education, or on welfare, courts, and prisons? I don't know why the Abbott money has not helped as much as one would hope, but I don't think the answer is taking it away.
Howard L. Pearl February 04, 2012 at 05:30 PM
Zach: There is an old adage, dating from 1706 in the J. Stephens “A New Spanish-American Dictionary’: “Don’t throw good money after bad”. A wise investor does not continue with a bad investment. No one argues that Abbott districts need help. These schools are top heavy with administrators, engaged with the additional funding from the Abbott. To continue to pour money into these black holes of education is a waste of OUR TAX DOLLARS! If you want to help them, you have to solve the urban problems, e.g. poverty; high truancy rates; poorly educated parents: language barriers; etc. New laboratories; modern classrooms; new computers; more assistant principals are in these schools, while the Fort Lee school system is short-staffed, utilizing outdated textbooks, relegated to teaching science lab without functional equipment. You asked the reason why Abbott hasn’t worked. Simply stated, the philosophy is based on another old fallacious adage “Money solves everything”. If you want to revise the rules to produce better results, you have my blessing. But until that plan is in place, let’s return the tax dollars to the taxpayers, so Fort Lee and other middle class communities do not suffer at the expense of politicians catering to urban voting blocs.

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