Student test scores stagnate in New Jersey

February 6, 2008 5:52:20 PM PST
New Jersey students perform better than most on standardized tests, but test results released by the state on Wednesday point to a challenge that could be looming: How to go from getting most kids to pass to getting them all to pass?

Under the No Child Left Behind education law, which President Bush is asking Congress to reauthorize, schools could lose federal funding or face other sanctions if all students are not scoring at grade level by the 2013-14 school year.

When the law was adopted six years ago, the 2013-14 goals seemed distant; now they're starting to come into focus for educators.

In New Jersey, performance on some exams seems to have reached plateaus - especially among higher-performing demographic groups.

"You may be getting a reality check that Congress needs to take a look at," said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, a group that represents 150 school districts, most of them suburban.

New Jersey's education officials do not sound especially optimistic about meeting the federal mandate, if it remains in place.

Deputy Education Commissioner Willa Spicer said Wednesday that teaching is improving statewide, and that should help meet the goal.

"Whether it will work before 2014, I don't know," she said.

The results from tests given to New Jersey students at several grade levels show that performance on literacy tests has been largely stagnant.

Last March, 80.6 percent of the state's fourth-graders passed a language arts test. Overall, students have hardly shown any progress, though. In 2001, 79 percent of students passed.

The lack of progress can be seen mostly among the top-scoring demographic groups.

While black, Hispanic and special education students, along with children who are not native English speakers, have advanced on the tests since 2001, white and Asian students have held steady.

For instance, 88.3 percent of white fourth-graders passed in 2001. In 2007, it was virtually unchanged, with 88.2 percent passing.

Math scores, meanwhile, have been trending up for students at levels below high school - possibly because there has been much more room for improvement. In 1999, 60 percent of fourth-graders scored at least at the "proficient" level on a statewide math test. Last year, 85 percent passed.

The only area where students performed markedly worse in 2007 than in 2006 on the state tests was in 11th-grade math. Over a longer timeframe, though, the high school math scores have been trending upward.

State Education Commissioner Lucille M. Davy said that coming changes in the way New Jersey allocates aid to schools could help push the passage rate closer to 100 percent in time.

Currently, the state pays for full-day preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds in 31 of the state's poorest communities. The preschools have been given credit for dramatic improvements in the reading of children in those cities.

Starting in two years, the state plans to offer similar programs to all low-income children, regardless of where they live. "That may help us close that final gap where students are not proficient," Davy said.

But it won't be until the 2014-15 school year - a year after the 100 percent proficiency requirement - that the students starting in the newly created preschools as 3-year-olds will reach third grade, when standardized testing begins.

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