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Poor Scores on PARCC Reflect Stiff Challenges Facing Schools in Newark

Level of student proficiency ranges from paltry 5 percent to high of only 28 percent

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The challenges facing Newark’s public schools were underscored this week with the release of sobering PARCC scores that showed only a small fraction of students in New Jersey’s largest district meeting the state’s new testing benchmarks.

Only half of New Jersey students taking the new online tests met PARCC’s grade-level “expectations,” according to statewide results released last month by the Christie administration.

With statewide district-by-district numbers just now being released, Newark’s scores were among the most anticipated given both the district’s size and its high profile.

The results released Tuesday night didn’t provide a very flattering snapshot, to be sure, with passing rates as low as 5 percent on some high school math tests. The highs were just 28 percent in other sections, including Grade 7 language arts, while most passing rates were in the lower 20s and teens.

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Newark Schools Superintendent Chris Cerf, the state’s former education commissioner who helped usher in the new tests, released the data at a sparsely attended meeting of the local school board.

He said the results should be a “clarion call” for the district to improve. At the same time, he faced questions from the audience about the effectiveness of his reforms and about the new test itself.

“These scores correlate to what we might have predicted based on other data, but they do reveal a very fundamental and indeed challenging truth,” Cerf said Tuesday night. “While roughly half of our students are demonstrating success or are very much in the game in approaching grade level expectations, what that means is roughly half are not.”

District officials described a slew of programs intended to remediate the shortcomings, especially in third-grade and ninth-grade literacy. In each of the grades, just one in five students attained PARCC’s defined grade level.

It wasn’t all bad news at Tuesday’s school board meeting. The PARCC results were released as part of a broader presentation that also detailed efforts to increase preschool enrollment and Cerf’s report that the four-year graduation rates rose to 70 percent in 2015, up from 61 percent in 2011.

Starting this year, the PARCC tests will gain more importance as they become one way to determine whether students get their high school diplomas. Students don’t currently need to pass the PARCC to graduate, but it is one of a half-dozen options for meeting the graduation requirement, a pathway that looks far narrower in Newark when less than half of this year’s seniors even came close to achieving a passing score.

While board members had plenty of questions about what steps are planned to improve the PARCC scores, several thanked Cerf for being more forthcoming than his controversial predecessor, Cami Anderson.

And neither board members nor audience members seemed shocked by the test results, with questions focused more on why New Jersey was sticking with a test that was supposed to provide a nationwide measurement of student proficiency but is now used by just six states and Washington, D.C.

“I am dumbfounded why we are continuing to follow a failed test,” parent Veronica Branch told the board, proceeding to describe the lack of a music teacher and other underfunded programs at her local elementary school.

Others told the board that better security is needed at several of the city’s high schools, saying fights have become more commonplace, and another audience member described a shortage of textbooks in even the highest-level classes.

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