MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — South Orange and Maplewood students who took last year’s Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exam scored higher on average on most subject tests than the average set by New Jersey students and students from the PARCC consortium, consisting of 11 states and District of Columbia at the time of the testing.
According to the PARCC results presented during the Jan. 25 Board of Education meeting, district students in grades three through 11 earned more passing scores than their state and consortium counterparts on every test except for the English language arts, or ELA, test for grades 10 and 11. According to district Chief Information Officer Paul Roth, South Orange-Maplewood might have done better on those tests if the 512 Columbia High School students who refused — a majority of the 767 total students who refused PARCC throughout the district — had actually participated in testing.
“We believe the results would’ve been better if everyone had participated,” Roth said in his presentation.
The passing scores for the ELA test were the following: in third grade, 68 percent of district students passed compared to 44 percent in New Jersey and 38 percent in the consortium; in fourth grade, 72 percent of district students passed compared to 51 percent in New Jersey and 42 percent in the consortium; in fifth grade, 71 percent of district students passed compared to 51 percent in New Jersey and 40 percent in the consortium; in sixth grade, 64 percent of district students passed compared to 49 percent in New Jersey and 39 percent in the consortium; in seventh grade, 68 percent of district students passed compared to 52 percent in New Jersey and 42 percent in the consortium; in eighth grade, 57 percent of district students passed compared to 51 percent in New Jersey and 42 percent in the consortium; and in ninth grade, 41 percent of district students passed compared to 39 percent in New Jersey and 40 percent in the consortium.
The only ELA scores below average were the following: in 10th grade, 30 percent of district students passed compared to 36 percent in New Jersey and 37 percent in the consortium, while in 11th grade, 22 percent of district students passed compared to 41 percent in New Jersey and 39 percent in the consortium.
Meanwhile, all the district’s math scores surpassed the state and consortium average: in third grade, 62 percent of district students passed compared to 45 percent in New Jersey and 38 percent in the consortium; in fourth grade, 55 percent of district students passed compared to 40 percent in New Jersey and 32 percent in the consortium; in fifth grade, 55 percent of district students passed compared to 41 percent in New Jersey and 32 percent in the consortium; in sixth grade, 56 percent of district students passed compared to 41 percent in New Jersey and 32 percent in the consortium; in seventh grade, 45 percent of district students passed compared to 37 percent in New Jersey and 29 percent in the consortium; in eighth grade, 32 percent of district students passed compared to 24 percent in New Jersey and 27 percent in the consortium; for the algebra I test, 46 percent of district students passed compared to 36 percent in New Jersey and 31 percent in the consortium; for the geometry test, 26 percent of district students passed compared to 24 percent in New Jersey and 21 percent in the consortium; and for the algebra II test, 38 percent of district students passed compared to 23 percent in New Jersey and 27 percent in the consortium.
When those scores are broken down into the five levels of expectations — not yet meeting, partially meeting, approaching, meeting and exceeding — 60 percent of students met or exceeded expectations for what PARCC considers an acceptable performance for the ELA test, while 49 percent achieved the same results for the math test. For the ELA test, only grades 10 and 11 did not get a majority of scores at or above expectations, with a respective 32- and 36-percent majority falling into the not yet meeting expectations category. For the math test, students who took the grade eight and algebra II tests were the only ones who did not get a majority of scores at or above expectations, with grade eight students getting a 32-percent majority in the approaching expectations category and algebra II students getting a 31-percent majority in the not yet meeting expectations category.
Roth pointed out that PARCC results actually should not be considered representative of a school’s performance since last year’s scores were reported based on which area a student was zoned for, not the school they attended. Additionally, he said the seventh- and eighth-grade math scores do not represent grade-level performance since many seventh- and eighth-graders took the high school-level algebra I and geometry tests instead of their own grades’ tests. The high school scores are not representative either, he said, due to the large number of CHS students who refused to take the exam.
Overall, Superintendent of Schools John Ramos told the News-Record that the district is enthusiastic about the PARCC scores. Though it is interested in eventually comparing the results to other districts’ scores within its District Factor Group — a collection of school districts with roughly the same socioeconomic status — Ramos said the district is happy with how its students did compared to others in the state and consortium.
“We are certainly encouraged to see that our scores are higher than the PARCC consortium and New Jersey averages,” Ramos said in a Feb. 1 email.
Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker told the News-Record that she did not find the PARCC results to be surprising. Though she was pleased to see that students did well where there were high participation rates, she said the exam scores also reflected the achievement gaps previously seen in the results for NJ ASK and other assessments. Indeed, the PARCC results showed that white, regular education and non-economically deficient students scored significantly higher than black, special education and economically deficient students on both the ELA and math test, with gaps ranging from 9 to 55 percentage points for the ELA test and 22 to 50 percentage points for the math test.
Such discrepancies do not sit well with Baker. “These disparities are urgent and highlight the work that needs to be done in implementing the recently adopted Access and Equity and placement policies,” Baker said in a Feb. 1 email.
Moving forward, the superintendent and Board of Education president said the PARCC scores will be used as the first step toward setting a baseline for the district to monitor instructional progress and look to making improvements. But Baker said this first year of exam results — which are not comparable to past NJ ASK scores — are not enough to bring about any immediate changes. She said the administration’s review of all assessments given to district students, which was promised in the board’s district goals for the year, will be a much more effective tool for deciding how instruction and professional development can be improved.
Elissa Malespina, who co-founded South Orange Maplewood Parents for Quality Education in opposition to PARCC, said she is pleased that the district does not plan to implement changes based on the exam results. She does not believe the PARCC exam is a good measure of a child’s ability, pointing out that it only focuses on ELA and math and ignores other subject areas in which a child could excel, such as social studies or science. She also said it is unfair that the tests may include questions on topics a student has not been taught, or that the questions might be written above a student’s reading level.
“A standardized test is never going to tell me what I know about a child,” Malespina, who works as a teacher-librarian for Somerville Middle School after previously being employed by the district, told the News-Record in a Jan. 29 phone interview. “A child is much more than a test score.”
Malespina said she did not find South Orange-Maplewood’s PARCC scores to be very impressive, adding that the results are virtually “invalid” since so many students refused to take the tests. Of those who did, she heard several did not even take the test seriously. Additionally, she questioned the legitimacy of the exam in general considering that only seven states and Washington, D.C., remain in the consortium following last year’s testing, down from the original 26 participants in 2010. And since the remaining participants each determine their own passing-score benchmarks, Malespina said there is no guarantee that comparisons between states will be fair.
Though she would prefer to see students measured based on their classroom grades or a portfolio assessment, Malespina said if PARCC testing must continue, she hopes the board will approve an official policy informing parents of their right to refuse the exam and providing an easy way to do so. Though such a policy was rejected last year, she said she hopes the district will take its recent commitment to transparency to heart and reconsider.
Ramos said the district will use the same procedure this year for refusing PARCC that was implemented last year: Parents will once again be required to submit a letter to their children’s principals stating that their children will not be participating in the exam.
But in a few years refusing PARCC may no longer be an option. Acting on the recommendations put forward by state Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey, the New Jersey Board of Education proposed new regulations last month that would make PARCC testing a graduation requirement for high school students starting with the Class of 2021, if approved. Though no decision has yet been made on those regulations — the board will first hold three regional hearings to get public feedback on them — Ramos said the district will comply with whatever the state requires. Malespina called the regulations a horrible idea.
In December 2015, the U.S. Department of Education also sent a letter reminding the state’s education department that federal funding could be withheld if standardized test participation rates fell below 95 percent, which is a concern Ramos said the district takes very seriously.
But Malespina said she thinks that was likely an empty threat. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing said that it is not aware of any state that has ever had its federal funding cut as a penalty for not testing enough students. In November 2015, Gov. Chris Christie also passed a law mandating that no state aid could be withheld as a consequence of refusing PARCC.