District stands by honors program admittance protocol

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange middle school honors program is once again the subject of controversy on the eve of its second year, with many parents voicing concerns about the criteria the school district uses to accept students entering the sixth through eighth grades.

Though some parents acknowledged that the transparency issues of last year seem to be largely resolved — this year the district notified them of their children’s admittance test scores and clearly outlined the timeline for the acceptance process — many were still upset about a revised criteria that has seen many children, including some current honors students, fail to be accepted. And they have several ideas as to how the procedure should be carried out next year.

“The whole thing definitely needs to be fixed,” Rachel Gordon, co-founder of the West Orange Cares About Schools parent group, told the West Orange Chronicle in a May 13 phone interview.

Gordon, who was also a member of the honors program committee that decided the changes made to this year’s honors criteria, said her biggest issue with the procedure is the fact that so much weight is placed on the tests and writing samples the students had to complete to get into honors math, language arts, science or social studies. Though the percentage varied depending on the subject and grade, the tests and writing samples always carried more weight than the teacher evaluation and averaged class grade, which were the other two factors taken into consideration for accepting a child into honors classes.

In fact, the criteria dictated that students entering the seventh and eighth grades needed to earn at least 65 points on the placement test, writing sample and current averaged class grade in order even to become eligible to receive a teacher evaluation, with their total resulting score having to amount to at least 80 points for acceptance. Even fifth-graders taking the test for sixth-grade honors had to score at least 65 points on the test and writing sample — current class grades were not considered because elementary school grading standards are not as consistent as middle school standards — before receiving a teacher evaluation, with students also having to earn at least 80 points to be accepted.

To Gordon, this emphasis on the test and writing sample is unfair to students who simply might not test or write well under pressure. She suggested giving each acceptance factor equal weight; that way, students who excel in the classroom but did not do as well on the test or writing sample would be equally as likely to be admitted into the honors program as a student who is great at examinations but might not thrive in a classroom environment. After all, she said, tests and writing samples do not necessarily indicate the type of student a child is.

“A whole year of work, to me, would seem to be a better indicator of their work than just one test,” Gordon, who is a teacher outside the district, said.

Gordon added that she does not even know why taking both a test and a writing sample is necessary if a current honors student is doing well. Though the criteria allows students who have an average of at least 90 in an honors class to skip the placement test for that particular subject, it mandates completion of the writing sample. The WOCAS co-founder said she would be in favor of exempting the students from both requirements if they had at least an 85 average in class.

Fellow West Orange parent Jenny Pollack also wishes that not so much emphasis were placed on the test considering how it affected her own child. Her son is currently doing well in a sixth-grade honors social studies class, but he did not do well on the admittance test for seventh-grade honors social studies. In fact, he did not score high enough to qualify for a teacher’s evaluation, so it really proved detrimental to his chances of being accepted. Had a greater weight been given to the recommendation of a student’s current teacher, she said her boy may have had a better shot of getting into the program.

And while Pollack said her son currently has an A average in the class, he did not do as well during the first two marking periods. This also hurt him because the current averaged grade the criteria considers is taken solely from the first two marking periods. Therefore, if she had her way, the mother said the criteria would include a more comprehensive look at students’ classroom performance rather than relying on a child’s performance at the start of the honors experience.

“I think taking the first two marking period grades is not so fair,” Pollack told the Chronicle in a May 12 phone interview. “It takes one or two marking periods to get used to how hard (honors) is. Now, are there kids who get As immediately? Of course. But what I saw with my son was that he had to adjust to new work habits and much more of a challenge.”

But Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky said considering grades beyond the first two marking periods was impossible this year due to the fact that the honors-acceptance process began before the end of the third marking period. This was a conscious decision made by the honors committee, in which he was involved, so that a balance could be struck between the timing of honors testing and PARCC testing, Rutzky said. Plus, he said starting the process earlier would give it more time to play out rather than waiting until the end of the school year.

As for the emphasis on the placement tests and writing samples, Rutzky said the majority of the committee felt that they had to hold the greatest weight in the criteria because they best show whether a child will be capable of handling the concepts taught at the next grade level. And though some students were exempt from taking the test if they had already proved they could earn As in honors, the superintendent said the writing sample was important for all students.

“The writing sample, many times, is what sets the students in an honors class apart from the other students,” Rutzky told the Chronicle in a May 16 phone interview. “Writing at a very high level and writing very effectively is something that’s needed in all subjects now, compared to five to 10 years ago. So the writing piece is something that the committee felt very strongly needed to have great emphasis in the acceptance process.”

The committee also discussed at length the possibility of increasing the weight of the teacher evaluation in the criteria, according to Edison Middle School Principal and committee member Xavier Fitzgerald. Specifically, Fitzgerald said the committee talked about how a teacher’s subjectivity could affect a child’s score as well as the possibility that teachers could be pressured by a parent or administrator into giving recommendations. In the end, he said it was decided to give a lesser weight to the recommendation while also providing teachers with a rating scale that allows them to judge a student based on specific subject skills and general academic performance. The teachers were also allowed to write an anecdotal statement on the students’ strengths and weaknesses, he said.

Another issue parents had with the honors examinations is that many of their children found that some material they were never taught was included on the tests. One parent, who asked not to be identified, said his son especially noticed this on the math test, which featured unfamiliar concepts.

Roosevelt Middle School Principal and honors committee member Lionel Hush confirmed that some new material was included in the tests, but it was no mistake. Hush explained that the tests — which were created by the teachers in the grade level the student is entering, in conjunction with the district’s subject supervisors — were always meant to feature concepts the students had not been taught so that teachers will be able to tell whether they can handle next-level reasoning.

“The honors test is not an assessment designed to measure what they have learned in their current class, it’s designed to measure their aptitude to perform in an advanced level course,” Hush told the Chronicle in a May 16 email. “The test addressed concepts that the students should have been familiar with as well as concepts that challenged their ability to think through problems.”

No matter what is included on the test, the parent who asked to remain anonymous said he believes parents should be able to see a breakdown of the results rather than just raw scores. That way, he said parents will be able to understand exactly why their children did not get into honors and what areas they can work on in the future.

“I want to know what my son scored, I want to know what my daughter scored so I can be a partner in the education of my children,” the parent said in a May 12 phone interview, adding that this is how “we can find a way to be able to meet their needs and increase rigor but also have a realistic idea of where our children are academically. And they’re not allowing us to do that, which we think is a real shame.”

Yet Rutzky said releasing the tests to parents is not a possibility because that would mean having to create new questions every year, which is not feasible. He further explained that these tests are designed to judge whether a child is ready for an advanced-level course — it is not meant to measure their current academic abilities. If parents want to better understand what their children’s strengths and weaknesses are, he suggested they meet with their children’s teachers.

Rutzky said it is currently unknown how many students have been accepted into the honors program since the appeals process is ongoing. But although the process is nearly over, the superintendent said the district is already thinking about how to improve it for next year. He said the committee will definitely reform next year in order to see what needs tweaking, though he said he does not think much will be changed.

Meanwhile, Rutzky said he empathizes with parents frustrated by the fact that their children were not accepted into honors, pointing out that it is always difficult to see children not get something they want. At the same time, he stressed that they should not be discouraged — just because they did not get into the program this year does not mean they are not intelligent, it just means the time may not be right for it yet.

“Not every student is ready to be in an advanced class,” Rutzky said. “That’s one of the main reasons why we provide an opportunity for children to get into honors the following year and the year after. Kids mature academically and emotionally at different times.”