by John Mooney
in NJ Spotlight on Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Despite progress among poor and minority students, achievement gaps must still be bridged

In what is a biennial rite of spring, New Jersey’s public schools get a report card from the NAEP tests of student performance, gauging how schoolchildren measure up against other states in math, reading, and other subjects.

And usually, it doesn’t change that much for New Jersey, with the state’s results typically near the top, even as the passing rates on the national test overall send a sobering reminder of the work still ahead.

Yesterday, the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress scores were released, and many of the same historical trends were in evidence: incremental gains were recorded nationally in most grades, but less than half the students met the NAEP’s grade-level standards.

But at a time when schools are under ever-increasing scrutiny, New Jersey earned some extra kudos. The state’s results were as strong as any in the country — sometime stronger — including among underserved groups.

Overall, New Jersey’s fourth-grade scores from last year showed the state virtually even with the top numbers in the country in both math and reading, and only a small notch behind for eighth-grade scores.

Among low-income students and minority groups that typically show wide gaps — and still do — New Jersey also saw significant gains on the NAEP test.

“This is an outstanding accolade for our students and educators,” said acting state education commissioner Lamont Repollet in announcing the results. “Our educators provide the learning environment for our students to thrive, and our children are rising to the challenge.”

There is only so much to be read into the results, which come from a random sample of students across the country. In New Jersey, about 2,200 students take the test, a small fraction of the more than 1 million enrolled in the state’s public schools.

But administered since 1969 and labeled the “Nation’s Report Card,” the NAEP is considered more reliable — and rigorous — than most standardized exams given to students, providing a common benchmark for states in the ongoing race for improvement.

And as New Jersey grapples with how best to measure student achievement, including Gov. Phil Murphy’s pledge to replace the state’s own standardized test, the latest NAEP scores put the state in a decent place.

“The release of New Jersey’s performance on NAEP demonstrates that we have the tools in place for our students to be academically successful,” said Patricia Morgan, executive director for JerseyCAN, an advocacy group pressing high standards.

Still, Morgan pointed out that wide gaps also remain. For instance, while 60 percent of white students taking the fourth-grade tests met their proficiency levels, the passing rates fell to as low as 25 percent for black students and 30 percent for Hispanic students.

“We also must dig beneath the statewide results to see the full picture and ask, ‘Is New Jersey truly meeting the needs of all students and closing the achievement gap?’” she said.

“Today’s results show some progress, but we must continue with urgency to close the persisting gaps as soon as possible for the future success of our students and our state,” she added.


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