District NJSLA results above state averages, but show persisting achievement gap

MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Superintendent of Schools Ronald Taylor reviewed the results of last school year’s standardized testing at the Oct. 28 Board of Education meeting, showing that South Orange-Maplewood School District students did better than state averages in nearly every category.

Last year, students across the state took the New Jersey Student Learning Assessments, which replaced the much criticized Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers assessments. According to Taylor, NJSLA is very similar to PARCC, with the main difference being that the NJSLA is shorter. While the two tests are not entirely the same, Taylor stressed that they are similar enough to compare when looking at trends.

“Statutorily, every district in the state of New Jersey has to give a review of the results of the standardized testing for the previous year by, I believe, the first week in November,” Taylor said. “I’ve only been here a few months and we’re still filling out some of our vacancies here in central administration, but we wanted to make sure we were compliant with this and informing the board and our community of the results of the NJSLA that was done with past spring.”

Students take the NJSLA English language arts and literacy assessment in grades three through 10. Students take the NJSLA mathematics assessment in grades three through seven; either the mathematics assessment or an end-of-course assessment in algebra I or geometry in eighth grade; and an end-of-course assessment in algebra I, algebra II or geometry in grades nine and 10.

A student’s NJSLA performance is ranked at five levels: Level 1 is “did not meet expectations”; Level 2 is “partially met expectations”; Level 3 is “approached expectations”; Level 4 is “met expectations”; and Level 5 is “exceeded expectations.” A 4 or 5 is a passing grade.

Overall SOMSD exceeded the state average in the percentages of students at Levels 4 and 5 in the English language arts assessments in third through fifth grades. According to the presentation, 62.9 percent of SOMSD third-graders passed, while only 50.2 percent of their statewide peers did; 71.3 percent of SOMSD fourth-graders passed, while only 57.4 percent of their statewide peers did; and 70.3 percent of SOMSD fifth-graders passed, while only 57.9 percent of their statewide peers did.

District middle schoolers also exceeded state averages for Levels 4 and 5 in the English language arts assessments. According to the presentation, 70.7 percent of district sixth-graders passed, while only 56.1 of the state’s sixth-graders did; 67.3 percent of district seventh-graders passed, while 62.8 percent of the state’s seventh-graders did; and 70.7 percent of district eighth-graders passed, while only 62.9 percent of the state’s eighth-graders did.

In English language arts, ninth- and 10th-graders likewise exceeded state averages for Levels 4 and 5. According to the presentation, 66.9 percent of district ninth-graders passed, while only 55.3 percent did statewide; and 70.4 percent of district 10th-graders passed, while only 58 percent did statewide. As for 11th-graders, the statewide average of those who passed was 29.9 percent while at CHS it was zero percent. However, this is because most 11th-graders at CHS met the state’s requirements for waiving participation and did not take the assessment; only two CHS 11th-graders took the assessment, with one scoring at Level 1 and the other at Level 2.

“There’s been so much discussion over the past few years relating to connecting our state testing assessments with state graduation requirements and there’s been a lot of phasing in and phasing out,” Taylor said.

Overall SOMSD exceeded the state in the percentages of students at Levels 4 and 5 in the mathematics assessments in third through fifth grades. According to the presentation, 68.1 percent of district third-graders passed, while only 55.1 percent of their statewide peers did; 60.8 percent of district fourth-graders passed, while only 51 percent of their statewide peers did; and 57.6 percent of district fifth-graders passed, while only 46.8 percent of their statewide peers did.

The results for district middle schoolers vs. state averages for Levels 4 and 5 in the mathematics assessments were more mixed. According to the presentation, 61.3 percent of district sixth-graders passed, while only 40.6 of the state’s sixth-graders did; and 38.1 percent of district seventh-graders passed, less than the 42.1 percent of the state’s seventh-graders who did. In the eighth-grade, SOMSD had a passing percentage of 6.7 compared to the state’s 29.3, though this data does not reflect the entire eighth-grade class as it does not include those eighth-graders who took algebra or geometry.

In algebra I, geometry and algebra II, SOMSD performed significantly better than the state. According to the presentation, 60.3 percent of the district’s algebra I students passed, while only 42.8 percent of the state’s did; 46.1 percent of the district’s geometry students passed, while only 31.2 percent of the state’s did; and 67.2 percent of the district’s algebra II students passed, while only 45.7 of the state’s did.

By comparing NJSLA/PARCC results from the past three years, the district was also able to chart the success of individual class years; for instance, comparing one year’s third-graders with the following year’s fourth-graders is a comparison of the same students. To see these comparisons, view the presentation online at www.somsd.k12.nj.us/headlines/2019/11/04/njsla-results-spring-2019-administration-presentation.

The presentation also compared NJSLA results in the district between different subgroups of students, specifically black, white, special education and economically disadvantaged. This data showed a significant achievement gap between black and white students, with white students scoring at Levels 4 and 5 far more often than their black classmates.

In the English language arts assessments, 73.3 percent of white third-graders passed while 34.1 percent of black third-graders passed; 80.9 percent of white fourth-graders passed while 50 percent of black fourth-graders passed; 84.2 percent of white fifth-graders passed while 41.1 percent of black fifth-graders passed; 79.9 percent of white sixth-graders passed while 46.6 percent of black sixth-graders passed; 82 percent of white seventh-graders passed while 41.6 percent of black seventh-graders passed; 84.5 percent of white eighth-graders passed while 44.1 percent of black eighth-graders passed; 86.9 percent of white ninth-graders passed while 37 percent of black ninth-graders passed; and 84.8 percent of white 10th-graders passed while 41.6 percent of black 10th-graders passed.

In the mathematics assessments, 77.7 percent of white third-graders passed while 41.8 percent of black third-graders passed; 73.9 percent of white fourth-graders passed while 35.2 percent of black fourth-graders passed; 72.2 percent of white fifth-graders passed while 26.8 percent of black fifth-graders passed; 74 percent of white sixth-graders passed while 26.9 percent of black sixth-graders passed; 58.5 percent of white seventh-graders passed while 15.1 percent of black seventh-graders passed; 12.5 percent of white eighth-graders passed while 3.8 percent of black eighth-graders passed; 73.9 percent of white algebra I students passed while 37.9 percent of black algebra I students passed; 60 percent of white geometry students passed while 19.2 percent of black geometry students passed; and 73.1 percent of white algebra II students passed while 42.9 percent of black algebra II students passed.

Regarding the achievement gap between black and white students assessed, the district observed the gap decreased for 10 different grade-level and subject matter assessments, including a 36-percent gap decrease in algebra II, a 21-percent gap decrease in algebra I and a 10-percent gap decrease in geometry. The achievement gap increased for five different grade-level and subject matter assessments, including a 7-percent gap increase in seventh-grade math and a 6-percent gap increase in fifth-grade math.

BOE 2nd Vice President Anthony Mazzocchi and member Johanna Wright expressed alarm about the result deviations seen among different racial groups.

“I read it that we have more black students not meeting the state average and more black students failing as early as third grade. So I’d like to know what we’re doing about that,” Mazzocchi said.

“I noticed that more black students are not meeting the state average. Why?” Wright asked. “It seems to me our curriculum isn’t meeting the needs of our black students. What are the plans to fix that?”

Taylor said that, while the curriculum does need to be evaluated, the district needs more research-based intervention to assist young students as they begin to fall behind.

“There’s an obvious achievement gap. I wouldn’t be able to tell you at this moment where that achievement gap came from, how it started in the district and how it has stayed with us over a number of years,” Taylor said. “We know this is an ongoing challenge in our district and, to me, the presentation that was before me spoke to the need for us to make sure we are being restorative with all of our students and that we’re expressing cultural competence and equity in our decision making. That we’re giving students what they need, not just all students the same thing.”

BOE member Elizabeth Baker questioned how the NJSLA results are being used to assess individual students to see if they have shown improvement or regression since taking the NJSLA, and Taylor promised to get back to her about that.

“I wouldn’t be able to speak with specificity about how the data was being used, but I can find out that information for you. I don’t want to misspeak on the public record,” Taylor said.

Mazzocchi also stressed the importance of data analysis.

“My personal opinions about standardized tests notwithstanding, but I see a lot of numbers and I did not see the data analyzed,” he said, telling Taylor he wants to see analysis that will show where specifically the district needs to improve.

Taylor agreed that analysis is needed and told Mazzocchi that it is the next step.

“There’s compliance and then there’s relevance. So this presentation tonight represents the compliance with state mandate but there’s a lot still to do to make it a relevant conversation,” Taylor said, adding that this analysis should inform budgetary discussions because each budget item should be supporting students. “It’s the whole point of the conversation, where you move from compliance to relevance. Standardized tests are not the be-all and end-all — we know that — but they are a valuable snapshot in time that can help us make decisions.”

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