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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 yesterday 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

In announcing the 2011 scores yesterday, Cerf said the wide gaps continued to serve as justification for Christie's reform agenda, controversial as it may be. That includes new teacher evaluations, reforms of tenure rules, tough new measures for low-performing schools, and more school choices for parents.

"During the past year, we have begun to put in place a number of reforms that will not only help our lowest-performing students, but that will help all New Jersey students continuously improve," Cerf said in a statement releasing the scores.

"Education reform is not a zero-sum game," he said. "We can all improve to make sure every child is truly ready for the demands of the 21st century."

But just as these gaps have longstanding histories, the administration's proposed solutions are hardly quick fixes. Further, solving the problems may only get harder as the tests themselves change in coming years under the Common Core State Standards.

Bookending the presentation of the scores, other administration officials yesterday presented updates on the teacher evaluation pilot in 11 districts and also the phase-in of the Common Core standards, including a model state curriculum for low-performing districts to potentially adopt.

The pilot has started slowly, with just half of the districts completing training, but officials said they were encouraged it will start in earnest this spring. The model curriculum will come by summer, officials said, but that is only the start.

"Having a wonderful curriculum is not enough to raise student achievement," said Penny MacCormack, the state's assistant commissioner in charge of the project. "We need to make sure that teachers understand effective practices."

State board member Dorothy Strickland is an expert in literacy instruction, a Rutgers professor, and member of a national panel helping devise new tests to match the Common Core.

Speaking after the meeting, she said that for all the worries about lagging scores now, once new tests are introduced, "It's going to get scary."

"It's only going to be more challenging because there will be a lot more focus on critical thinking and problem solving," she said.

Strickland said she does worry for students who are struggling to pass state tests now only to see more obstacles in their way. Still, she said there is little choice but to improve the standards and tests, and also the teaching that will be required.

"This will only work if people see the interconnections, and see how all these are interrelated," she said.

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