WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Eveny de Mendez presented data covering the district’s performance on assessments—including the NJSLA (formerly PARCC), the SAT and Advanced Placement (AP) tests for the 2018-2019 school year—during last week’s West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) meeting.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. J. Scott Cascone explained that this year’s presentation was different from prior years because it included results of the New Jersey Student Learning Assessment (NJSLA) in addition to some other assessments that were administered in the district. He added that the annual presentation provides snapshots of the data in order to showcase analysis and interventions being taken to address gaps in the data.

“This was truly a team effort in terms of what went into the report,” said Cascone, who also thanked District Testing Coordinator Stephanie Diegmann for the “heavy lifting” she did in “the mining of data and creating reports.”

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De Mendez also explained that the districts plans to present other content areas at future board meetings, beginning with social studies and English Language Arts (ELA) at the upcoming board meeting on Nov. 18.

In the Spring of 2019, New Jersey transitioned from PARCC to NJSLA testing, which, according to de Mendez, meant that there was “less opportunity to demonstrate proficiency” because the points administered in the NJSLA were decreased by nearly half as compared to the PARCC, which also shortened testing time.

Overall, the data showed that students in grades three through 10 exceeded the performance of students throughout New Jersey in ELA. However, de Mendez mentioned that although students are “progressing and improving,” the district still has “a good amount of work to do” based on the recommendations of the ELA Evaluation Committee.

For grades three to five, data showed that the district needs to work on “vocabulary, interpretation and use,” focusing on writing and how students think as readers and writers, according to de Mendez.

She also noted that there was a dip in performance of students moving from fifth to sixth grade because it is the first transition year for students within the district. As a result, “grade six requires the greatest level of support,” said de Mendez. There are also similar dips in performance when students encounter transitions at grades seven and nine, she added.

“Generally, when students stay consistent in a building with in West Orange over time, we’re able to regain our performance,” said de Mendez, adding that discrepancies reappear when students enter grades nine and 10 because students are given the choice to complete alternative assessments to the NJSLA, such as the SAT.

When discussing math assessments within the district, de Mendez said that although students in grades three to five exceeded the state average in all areas, the transition from PARCC to NJSLA focused on concept skills and procedures and expressing mathematical reason. The change meant there was a heavier focus on modeling and applications—an area that the district’s math committee has said that students have been struggling in since last year, according to de Mendez.

At the middle school level, West Orange students in grades six, seven and eight did not exceed the state averages, which de Mendez said is “a definite product of our middle school math program.” According to de Mendez, the district expects to “see a very purposeful and deliberate increase in our performance over time” due to the newly adopted Ready Math program recommended by the math committee for grades six to eight.

De Mendez also added that when looking at demographics, “gaps increase significantly in math between subgroups in comparison to ELA.”

She elaborated that the gaps are potentially due to the focus the country places on reading, which has allowed school districts to ascertain the needs of students in ELA, but that it does not lend itself to determining whether students have “that same grasp in math.”

“So, we’re taking a look [at how] we can really identify and support our students better,” said de Mendez.

In response, Cascone said that although it’s difficult to get students excited about math, educators in general need to approach mathematics instruction as “a language that’s beautiful [and] has an artistic quality to it.”

“We don’t have the luxury of a small percentage of kids identifying themselves as math people,” he said. “We need more math people [because there are] more jobs requiring people to be math people, and so we need to figure out how to do that.”

De Mendez then moved on to discuss the new initiative to “require students to take the SAT prep course” offered by the district. Participation in the prep course has increased to more than 411 students in 2019 compared to the 55 who enrolled the year before.

“We believe that this going to strengthen our SAT scores,” she said.

De Mendez also explained that the high school math program was recently restructured so that by the time students sit down for the exam, “they will have had algebra one and algebra two.”

“That wasn’t the case before,” she said. “So, we believe all of those strategies combined will give us a stronger student.”

De Mendez also talked about the AP exams from Spring 2019 in which 86 percent of students scored a three or higher out of five.

Of the exams that are offered in 23 subjects, the scores for AP Literature and Composition have increased by 38 percent, and scores in AP Language and Composition increased by 13 percent. According to de Mendez, scores in AP Calculus remained the same as the previous year with 80.6 percent of students passing the exam, which is still well above the state average at 64.9 percent.

She also added that AP Statistics and AP Computer Science classes “will have an additional lab period beginning in September 2020.” Credits available for the course will increase from five to six, and additional instructional time will be offered in order to “cover more material and allow extra practice and reviewing of effective test taking strategies.”

De Mendez noted that with the help of the newly reformed Diversity Committee, which currently has 72 people, work is actively being done to close the achievement gap within the district.

“We’re looking at the different areas that are proven to begin to close achievement gaps, specifically between ethnic groups,” said de Mendez.

Earlier this week, the committee broke into subgroups to begin exploring different strategies around “cultural competence, comprehensive support for students, outreach to families, extended learning opportunities, culturally responsive classrooms that support learning, SCS, supportive schools, strong district support, access to qualified staff, and adequate resources and funding,” de Mendez added.

“We have a lot of work to do to close these gaps, but that will be our mission,” she said.

De Mendez concluded that the district and the community are up for the challenge.

“In terms of student achievement, I think the most important thing that we can do for our kids to create an environment where they can figure out who they are, what they’re good at, what they like,” said Cascone. “I think if we can do that, that’ll naturally lead them down a road where they’re able to make informed decisions about what courses they want to take and where they want to end up after high school…

“I think when I look at it from a superintendent standpoint, that’s the kind of environment that I want to foster not only for teachers. And I do believe—[or] I’m hypothesizing, I should say—that we will see positive results in our students as a result of the things we’re doing.”

Following the presentations, WOBOE Vice President Sandra Mordecai commented on the Ready Math program, explaining that she hates to see the district buying new math books every couple of years when the program doesn’t work.

“I want to make sure that we’re fixing the problem and not just buying books every three to five years,” she said, adding that after purchasing “Everyday Math” and “Connected Math” and the revised editions of both programs, she would like the math department to “fix the root cause” of the problem. “Doesn’t matter what book you get. Math is math; it doesn’t really change that much over time.”

In response, fellow board member Cheryl Merklinger, who is married to a math teacher from another district, disagreed with Mordecai, mentioning that “math is very different today than it was when we learned it.”

“Two plus two is not just four anymore,” she said. “It might be 4.1, it might be 3.9 depending on what you’re doing at the time, so I do look forward to seeing how the math program works.”

Math teacher Rachel Gordon, who is also one of the parents on the math committee, agreed that math is always changing. As one of the parents who selected “Ready Math,” Gordon said she is hopeful that the program will be steady enough “so that teachers aren’t having to create everything every year [so] they can then focus on how to improve [district] scores.”

In other news, the board congratulated Sharon Fumia, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at both Liberty and Roosevelt Middle Schools, and Ruysdael Georges, a paraprofessional at West Orange High School (WOHS) on their retirements after serving the district for 19.5 and 14.5 years, respectively.

The next board of education meeting will be on Nov. 18 at WOHS.