SOMERSET, NJ - School officials presented standardized test scores and safety reports during last month's Oct. 17 Board of Education meeting.

Last year the DOE announced that students would take shorter tests under a different name – leaving behind the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, commonly known as PARCC, in favor of the New Jersey Student Learning Assessments, or NJSLA.

Since 2017, the district averaged a three percent increase in the percentage of students not yet meeting or partially meeting grade-level expectations in math. Test scores can range from one to five, with a score of one representing a student not meeting grade-level expectations, while a score of five indicates a student is exceeding expectations. Some grades, like grade 6, saw as high as a 12 percent increase in scores of one and two over three years.

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Meanwhile, students scoring four or five, which the state describes as an indication that a student is ready for college or a career, dropped by an average of 2.7 percent. Grade 6 again showed the largest drop with 13 percent fewer students scoring 4 or 5 in 2019 than in 2017.

With students taking the shorter tests for the first time this year, six grade levels increased the percentage of students scoring one or two in math compared to 2017, with only three grades increasing the percentage of scores of four and five during the same period.

Overall, the percentage of students scoring four or five dropped by about a percent compared to last year.

Related: The Future of Education: What Matters is Student Proficiency

However, when comparing last year’s results to this year, there’s an uptick of grades increasing the percentage of students meeting expectations and a decrease of grade levels where students tested poorly. Five of the nine grades tested increased the percentage of students who scored a four in 2019, compared to just three the previous year. At the same time, seven grades increased the percentage of level one scores last year while only five increased in 2019.

While not as dramatic as the gains in English, students across all racial and economic groups saw increases in the percentage of scores of four and five over the past five years. Black and Hispanic students continued to lag behind their peers – with only 27 and 26 percent of Black and Hispanic students scoring four or five compared to 37 percent of all students in 2019 – both groups have seen gradual improvements since 2015.

In previous years, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Dan Loughran said the district invested a lot of time and energy in addressing language arts. Because of this focus, the district beat the state average for the first time in 20 years after 60 percent of this year’s grade 10 students scored four or five in English compared to the state average of 58 percent.

Since 2015, the percentage of students scoring four or five in English grew by 14 percentage points, with every racial group seeing double-digit percentage point increases over the last five years.

Loughran said the administration doesn’t intend to rest on its laurels when it comes to English, but instead, use what it’s learned to help address the district’s math scores.

Just as there’s a focus on literacy, Loughran said the district is in the early phases of instilling a commitment to numeracy across subjects.

“It has to be our thing,” he said.

To break down the silos between subjects, Loughran said he hopes to encourage teachers to introduce the interpretation of numbers into courses that may not be number-heavy, to begin with.

Some of the efforts to increase students’ comfort with mathematics are already paying dividends. There has been a focus on reciprocal teaching, which Loughran describes as a “student-owned approach where students have to demonstrate their learning by talking about what they’ve learned.”

“When these students were in second-and third-grade they were just learning that approach and now we’re starting to see the benefits of that,” he said.

TAP here for Assessment Results: Spring 2019 Administration.

During the same BOE meeting Director of School Management and Student Advocacy Orvyl Wilson presented the Student Safely Data System report. 

Wilson reported there was an increase in incidents in the 2018-2019 school year compared to the previous year when office discipline referrals (ODRs) seemed to be on the decline.

Only the elementary schools were able to continue the downward trend into 2019, which administrators are taking as an indication of the success of the “One Less Move” initiative.

“This is evidence that the restructuring is working at that elementary level,” said Wilson. “So putting the fifth graders in the elementary schools seems to be having a positive impact.”

Referrals were down by 33 percent across all elementary schools, with 90 percent of students staying out of the principal’s office entirely. Each of the six types of misconduct the district measures – bus disturbance, noncompliance, physical aggression, disruption, threat and other – reported fewer instances than the 2017-2018 school year, with disruption plummeting by almost 97 percent down to just two reported cases in 2019.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Wilson said. “We believe that as we continue our efforts, this trend will continue.”

On the other hand, the restructuring effort that put fifth graders in elementary school is facing growing pains at the middle school level.

Wilson told the board of education that the new structure raised some issues for both students and teachers.

“(Some teachers) had to learn that middle school students don’t always interact or behave like elementary school students,” Wilson said.

The 50 percent increase in referrals across the two middle school campuses came with a 64 percent increase in physical aggression and a 71 percent increase in noncompliance and disrespect.

At the same time, the high school saw a 21 percent uptick in ODRs, driven largely by the administration’s crackdown on lateness and cutting class. Write-ups for those categories increased by 200 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

“We understand and realize how (lateness and cutting class) impacts students’ ability to earn credit,” said Wilson. “So the focus was on classroom attendance and lateness to class and consequently you can see that focus is reflected in these numbers.”

While those two types of misconduct skyrocketed last year, ODRs were down in every other category, which Wilson said showed progress in other areas.

In an effort to address some of these upticks, he said that the district will continue to use Saturday detention as an alternative to suspension so students don’t lose classroom time.

Even with this policy, however, out-of-school suspensions increased by 7 percent in 2019. Just over 5 percent of the total student population received at least one suspension, which Wilson said is still below the national average.

TAP here for Student Safety Data System Reporting

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