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Student Test Scores Remain Steady, Despite Changes to Core Curriculum

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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.

Still, while the existing testing has slowly started to adopt new and tougher material, the biggest changes will come in 2014-2015, when New Jersey moves entirely to the new testing known as PARCC, the acronym for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

And it’s not just about what’s on the tests, but how they will be given. Much of the testing will be online by computer, and in multiple phases over the course of the year. PARCC is being field tested now in dozens of districts, but it will be a big change for most schools long familiar with the state’s paper-and-paper testing given once a year over the course of several days.

Neither Cerf nor Erlichson were ready to make predictions on the results that will come out of the new exams.

The high school test will be a particularly big change, with the state moving eventually to specific subject testing on not just language arts and math but also into subjects such as biology and algebra.

Those new standards have yet to be phased into the state’s testing, and the administration has slowly rolled out the implications of those changes over the past several months, detailing how the transition will take place.

Board members raised the concerns brought forward by districts and others for several years as to whether the higher bar on the high school tests will mean few students moving on to graduation and potentially dropping out.

“As we move to the brave new world of testing, we will have a new basis for high school graduation with presumably higher standards that will result in fewer kids currently graduating from high school,” said board member Claire Chamberlain. “It will be a force to be reckoned with.”

Yesterday, Erlichson repeated that the state’s current requirement that students pass the high school test to graduate will be suspended for the current eighth, ninth, and 10th graders as PARCC is being rolled out.

Erlichson said there will be a review of student results, starting in 2015, to determine how the new graduation requirement will be set going forward.

“We are still 18-20 months away from having our first data,” she said. “It is hard for us to talk in detail about what the world will look like.”

Still, Erlichson said it will be a test for many states, and she conceded it will have its challenges as schools adopt to evaluations tied to specific subject areas, whenever they're taught.

“We will see some messiness of students taking tests at different grade levels,” she said. “Getting that tightness between instruction and assessments, we know this will improve instruction and improve student outcomes, but getting there could prove a little rocky.

She added: “Keep calm and carry on.”

There are also some statutory and regulatory requirements to overcome in that transition, with state law currently requiring the graduation test, but neither Erlichson nor Cerf broached the topic yesterday.

State board leaders said they have yet to see any specific proposals along those lines, with the new testing still two years off.

“There is a lot of work that has taken us to this point,” said Arcelio Aponte, the board president. “But there is certainly going to be difficulties going forward. Still, we are not just turning on a switch. We have been working on this many, many years.”

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