‘Concerning’ test results in Newark give insight into pandemic learning loss

Fall standardized test scores show Newark students are struggling with grade-level math and English language arts. (Nathan W. Armes/Chalkbeat)

Eighty-seven percent of Newark fifth graders are in need of “strong support” in math, according to a recent standardized test that offers a window into how much the COVID pandemic has harmed their learning. 

Overall, the vast majority of Newark students are struggling with grade-level instruction in math, science, and English language arts, the statewide tests showed.

Start Strong assessments, created by test design and development company New Meridian, were administered to students statewide between Sept. 13 and Oct. 22 in place of state exams that were canceled last school year. The test uses students’ scores to place them into three categories: either they’re in need of “strong support,” “some support,” or “less support.” 

Students in grades 4-10 took the English language arts assessments. In addition, grades 4-8 took math assessments, and students in algebra 1, geometry, and algebra 2 classes also took their respective math exams. Grades six, nine, and 12 took the science assessment.

In the math test, the overwhelming majority of fifth graders, or 87%, fell in the lowest score range, or in the “strong support” category, while only 3.9% fell in the “less support” category, or the highest score range. 

The “less support” category is equivalent to scoring high on the typical state standardized tests, such as achieving a proficient or an above proficiency score, said Lu Han, the director of strategic and academic data for Newark Public Schools. Han presented the Start Strong results at a recent Newark Board of Education meeting. She added that the “strong support” category would be on par with the lowest score, not meeting grade expectations.

Overall, the trends in Newark showed upper grades outperformed lower grades in math and English language arts, and students on average had better results in English language arts than they did in math or science, Han said.

A closer look at the data from Han’s presentation shows that over 80% of students in grade levels four, five, and six are in need of strong support in math. About 73% of students who took the geometry test and 72.5% of students who took algebra 1 are also in need of strong support.

Newark Public Schools officials shared results from a statewide test administered this fall that found the majority of district students need “strong support” in math and English language arts. (Newark Public Schools)

“I’ll be the first one to let everybody know we have a lot of work to do,” Superintendent Roger León said at that meeting.

Many of the trends in Newark, such as students scoring lower in math than English language arts, run parallel to trends seen nationally as students return to in-person school this academic year. National trends also suggest that fewer low-income students are starting at grade level than their higher-income counterparts. 

School board co-vice president Vereliz Santana asked district leadership about how federal stimulus funds would be used to employ strategies to “remediate and hopefully address some of these concerning test results.” But León said the district’s “strategy is not to remediate students. Our strategy is to give them algebra, give them calculus, and to make sure they have a teacher worthy of the students that are in front of them.”

The Start Stong test results also mirror test results from standardized tests Newark students took in the spring, which showed extensive learning loss

Han said the scores from the spring exams should be used along with the fall test results and other data points for analysis of where students stand this school year.

The results from the beginning-of-year tests, which took 45-60 minutes for each subject area, are meant to help educators establish interventions for students based on the data collected and conversations with parents, according to the New Jersey Department of Education. 

Assessment scores have been shared with students’ parents at this point, the district confirmed Thursday by email.

The state Department of Education said parents will receive an “individual student report” for each subject their child was tested on, which includes a description of the major concepts that were tested and a starting point for discussions with their child and their child’s teachers. 

“What additional supports are available to help my child during the school day and beyond regular school hours?” and “How will I know if my child is improving?” are some of the questions the state education department suggests parents might want to ask after reviewing the scores.

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