WEST ORANGE, NJ — For the third straight year, several parents are speaking out against the admissions process for the West Orange School District’s honors program — specifically criticizing the emphasis the criteria puts on the placement test and writing sample.
Much like last year, the parents believe that more weight should be placed on the teacher’s recommendation and classroom grades. While the district did revise the criteria to reduce the weight of the test by 5 percent and increase the weight of the grades by 5 percent, the parents feel the shift is not significant enough. They particularly disagree with the fact that students are not even eligible for a teacher’s recommendation unless they accumulate at least 65 points through the test, sample and grades portions of the criteria.
According to Robin Isserles, co-founder of the West Orange Cares About Schools parent group, the process seems backward.
“The teachers with their expertise and knowledge should be at the forefront of (the criteria), along with the performance in school,” Isserles told the West Orange Chronicle in a May 12 phone interview. “It’s the teachers who are going to see the intrinsic motivation of students who are willing to work hard. It’s the teachers who are going to know the students and what drives their passions. And it is the teachers who are going to recognize and appreciate those sort of outside-the-box thinkers who either will or will not perform in an honors environment. I don’t think a test is going to reflect those kinds of nuances.”
The criteria weight for entering the seventh- and eighth-grade English and social studies honors courses is currently distributed at 20 percent for the placement test, 40 percent for the writing sample and 20 percent for the average classroom grade. For math and science courses, the weight is distributed at 35 percent for the test, 25 percent for the sample and 20 percent for the grade. If the students reach the 65-point benchmark for a teacher recommendation, the recommendation will count for 20 percent for all subject courses. Students must reach 80 points to be accepted into an honors class.
Students entering the sixth grade likewise have to attain 80 points to be accepted into the honors program, with a 65-point benchmark to qualify for a teacher recommendation. Unlike for seventh and eighth grades, though, a child’s average classroom grade is not considered as part of the process since elementary school grading is handled differently than middle school grading.
As the criteria stands now, Isserles said, current honors students could do well in class all year yet still fail to get into the program for next year if they do poorly on the placement test. And that is entirely possible, she said, because some children simply do not test well. Some questions might even be unfair to some students who do not understand certain references due to their cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds, she said. The WOCAS cofounder said the district should realize all this before putting so much faith in the test as a determining factor for enrollment.
Granted, the WOSD did change the admissions process so that students with a 95 or higher in an honors course were placed automatically into honors for that subject next year, and honors students with an average grade between 85 and 95 were exempt from taking the placement test. But that is not good enough, according to Isserles, because the writing sample is still a timed assessment. How children do on one exam will not necessarily predict how well they would do in the honors program all year.
Another issue parents had with the honors admissions process is the fact that placement tests include material not taught in class. One parent who asked to remain anonymous said her daughter gets As in her non-honors math course and is involved with an advanced education program outside the district, but still failed to get into seventh-grade honors math after encountering difficult concepts she had never before studied. She thus questioned whether the test was intended to be more of a “roadblock” as opposed to an admissions tool.
“It seems that if you’re not already in honors, it’s that much tougher to actually break in,” the parent told the Chronicle in a May 15 phone interview.
Board of Education member Mark Robertson finds that notion troubling. Robertson, who reached out to the Chronicle speaking on behalf of himself only and reiterating comments he has made in open public meetings, said including material students do not know is unfair to non-honors students and economically disadvantaged students who cannot afford tutors. That is especially true, he said, considering that honors students get one to five high-difficulty challenge problems per day while non-honors students get one or two challenge problems per week. And while the WOSD has argued that including new material on the test gives students a chance to demonstrate their problem-solving capabilities, Robertson said a timed exam is not the place for students to figure things out.
And by not giving classroom grades a higher weight, Robertson said, the district is only narrowing the pipeline of successful students and reducing opportunities for achievement.
“The system defies the administration’s stated goals of student achievement: to challenge children at the highest level and not frustrate them,” Robertson told the Chronicle in a May 15 email. “A-students are denied opportunities and children are tested on subject matter that they were not taught. This frustrates them and denies them the highest level of achievement.”
On top of that, Robertson said the BOE never approved the content for any of the placement tests, which he believes violates New Jersey Department of Education statute and BOE policy. He explained that, according to DOE statute, courses of study and assessment tests must be discussed publicly and passed by a vote. He said the BOE has similar policies, yet the board has never seen what is on the test — let alone approved it. He even contacted the New Jersey School Boards Association’s legal department, which confirmed that the board indeed should have voted on the test’s subject matter.
Like Robertson and the other parents, WOCAS cofounder Rachel Gordon believes the honors admissions process should be changed. Specifically, Gordon said she would be in favor of accepting any honors student with an A or B average as well as any non-honors student with an A average. Students in honors that have less than a B average or non-honors students with less than an A average can then apply for the honors program through a combination of teacher recommendations, classroom grades and the benchmark assessments that students must take throughout the year.
That way, Gordon said, the district will still have rigorous methodology of accepting the most qualified children into the honors program. At the same time, she said, students will not feel stupid or confused over how they could do well in class all year and then miss out on getting into honors after taking one test.
Yet Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky is content with the way the current admissions process, and said all criteria weights were determined by the Honors Committee, which consists of teachers, supervisors, principals and parents who used their expertise to determine what would be appropriate. And while some may feel that the weights for the placement test and writing sample should be lowered, he said those tools are simply too important to de-emphasize or eliminate. He stressed that the writing sample in particular really sets children apart from one another in determining who will best fit the honors program.
But Rutzky also stressed that the admissions process is not the only way a student can get into honors. As for children not accepted into the program and who did not meet the score threshold necessary to appeal the process, Rutzky said principals meet with teachers to discuss the expected performance of the children were they placed into the program anyway. That way, the superintendent said, students who might not be good test-takers or who might have been affected by issues outside of school could still qualify.
“We’re not in the business to exclude kids — we’re trying to include everybody who belongs in the honors course,” Rutzky told the Chronicle in a May 22 phone interview, adding that the admissions criteria will not necessarily look the same for next year. “We’re always trying to improve the process and tweak the process where we feel the tweaking would make the process better.”
To that end, BOE President Sandra Mordecai pointed out that the Honors Committee meets to review changes that could be made to the process. Mordecai said the district and BOE are also monitoring how the honors program is conducted.
“As student achievement is our mission and that of all school districts, we seek to continuously improve,” Mordecai told the Chronicle in a May 22 email. “Analysis is done and data-driven decisions are made.”