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Student Test Scores Remain Steady, Despite Changes to Core Curriculum

New Jersey students face a world of differences, not just in what they need to study but in the way they'll be tested

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Over the years, New Jersey’s annual rollout of school test scores has often come with a broader message: Students are doing better. Students are doing worse. The achievement gap is widening. The achievement gap is closing.

Yesterday, as the Christie administration announced that there was little change in the 2012-2013 test scores for New Jersey’s 2,500 schools, the message appeared to be more about the state itself as it embarks on some big changes in testing and standards.

One one hand, the administration was telling the public to stay calm, stressing that the new Common Core State Standards and the dramatically new testing they will bring in the coming years maybe not as big a shock as some fear.

On the other, there is going to be at least some shock.

In an elaborate hour-long presentation before the state Board of Education, Education Commissioner Chris Cerf and his top lieutenant for testing, assistant commissioner Bari Erlichson, went step by step through the latest scores and what they mean for the state.

Bottom line: little had changed in the past year -- or even the past several years -- in terms of test results, as the state as started to transition to the new Common Core standards.

On the elementary and middle school tests, known as NJASK, about 67 percent of all students had shown proficiency in language arts and 75 percent in math. The language arts was a slight improvement, the math a tiny decline from the previous year.

On the high school test, currently required for graduation, there was not much change either: 94 passing in language arts and 85 percent in math last year, both slight increases from 2012.

Search interactive database of results for NJASK8

Search interactive database of results for High School Proficiency Assessment

In the national picture, New Jersey also continued to fare in the very top tier when looking at SAT scores, Advanced Placement tests, and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the exam given nationwide to a sample of students in each state.

Erlichson made light of how New Jersey again placed behind Massachusetts in overall achievement, saying that's not a bad place to be. “Good for Massachusetts,” she said. “We’re Number Two.”

But the bigger message from the administration appears to be that no news is good news, and that little change was actually a good sign as the tests slowly evolve and presumably get harder under the Common Core Standards that New Jersey and more than 45 other states have adopted.

According to Cerf, the static scores were evidence that New Jersey was at least keeping up so far. That’s a stark contrast to some other states, such as New York most recently, where the transition to the new content on the tests has brought drastic drops in the percentage of students meeting performance targets.

“We feel very good that these scores have held firm,” said Cerf yesterday of the latest results. “We think this is early evidence that the violent disruption of students that are not proficient is going to be less extreme in New Jersey than it has been in other states.

“The fact that we made the test harder and we stayed the same [in terms of achievement levels] is a very positive sign,” he said.

The focus on the new standards and testing was apparent, as much of Erlichson’s presentation centered on the changes to come, including detailed information about how the new standards vary from the previous ones.

For instance, she described how the Common Core standards pose “subtle” changes in language arts, but went on to detail how there is more critical thinking in reading instruction and more informational text in the writing.

Overall, as many as half of the items on some of the state tests had been newly aligned to the Common Core standards, she said.

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