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New Jersey’s third graders didn’t see improvement in reading over last year in the latest state Student Learning Assessments, the second round of standardized tests administered since the pandemic disrupted learning more than three years ago.
Results from the 2023 state tests in reading and math showed that seventh graders and Algebra 1 students struggled to improve in math, and disparities remained strikingly wide. Newark’s proficiency rates, in large part, continued to trail behind statewide averages — among the most daunting are third grade reading proficiency rates as low as 1.6% in one elementary school.
But even so, there were notable overall gains in reading and math across many student groups, state Department of Education officials said as they presented the latest test score data at a state Board of Education meeting last week in Trenton that streamed on YouTube.
The results serve as a reminder that the pandemic disproportionately affected thousands of students across the state and in Newark. They also highlight the challenges facing districts, which are scrambling to find effective strategies to help students catch up as the fourth year since the pandemic began approaches.
“This is going to take time,” said Jorden Schiff, the education department’s assistant commissioner of teaching and learning services, as he referred to ongoing efforts to return to pre-pandemic levels in key subject areas, such as reading and math. “No one can predict exactly how many years it will take.”
Some grades, schools show minimal progress
New Jersey put a pause on state standardized testing in 2020 and 2021 during the height of the pandemic. The annual spring exams in reading, math, and science restarted in 2022, providing the first glimpse of the learning loss that occurred since the pandemic began. The English language arts exams are administered to grades 3-9. Math exams go to grades 3-8, while specialized math exams in Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Geometry are administered to students taking those courses. Science is administered to grades 5, 8, and 11.
The statewide results for 2023 showed some positives when looking at the overall picture: There was a 2.2% increase in math proficiency and 2.4% increase in reading proficiency when looking at the average of scores across all grades. Similarly, Newark Public Schools saw an overall increase of 2% in both math and reading.
But a closer assessment of the data reveals more nuance to this picture.
Third graders’ reading proficiency statewide remained at 42%, the same as last year — and 8 percentage points lower than the 50% rate in 2019. All other grades that took the reading exam, though, showed at least a 1 to 4 percentage point improvement over last year.
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Similarly, seventh graders’ proficiency in math remained at 34% this year — 8 percentage points behind the proficiency rate of 42% in 2019 — and the Algebra 1 proficiency rate went unchanged from last year at 35%, also 8 percentage points behind the 2019 rate. Again, all other grades that took the math exams showed some improvement between 1 and 6 percentage points over last year.
“When we disaggregate based on grade level, this is when you’re starting to see some differentiation,” Schiff said.
Newark third graders’ reading proficiency rate of 19.1%, an improvement of .1% over last year, was still 9 percentage points behind 2019 and 22.9% behind the state’s average.
A close look at school-by-school results in the district show third graders at a few schools are exceeding the district’s and state’s overall proficiency for that grade, while others are trailing significantly.
Forty-two percent of third graders at Ann Street, 46.9% at Ivy Hill, and 50% at Sir Isaac Newton elementary schools are proficient in reading. But at other schools, the third grade proficiency rate is bleak — with Hawkins Street elementary at 1.6%, Quitman Street at 1.9%, and Dr. E. Alma Flagg at 2.6%.
Over at North Star Academy, the largest charter school network in Newark, 58.6% of third graders are proficient in reading — a rate that far exceeded the district and state averages in third grade English language arts.
Over the last year, North Star has put extra attention on teacher training and tutoring during the school day, with a focus on small group instruction, said network spokesperson Maria Alcón-Heraux.
Across the city, local leaders have been taking steps to address the learning impacts on children.
Before the start of the 2022-23 school year, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka launched a 10-point Youth Literacy Action Plan that called on community groups and local programs to get young children reading and writing in and out of school. The public school district also mandated students attend summer school as an additional learning opportunity.
Paula White, executive director of education advocacy group JerseyCAN, said in a statement that the latest state test scores provide “evidence that our children are not acquiring the skills and knowledge that will prepare them for a viable life in adulthood.”
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“It is fair to say that we continue to lack the urgency and leadership to fully address the needs of our public school students,” White said.
State, districts search for strategies to close gaps
The state’s analysis of test results broken down by other student groups, such as race and ethnicity, English language learners, economically disadvantaged, and students with disabilities, shows improvements across the board, said Schiff, the assistant commissioner, at last week’s state school board meeting.
He noted Black students across all grades showed a jump in reading proficiency of 3.2%, an increase from 30.5% in 2022 but still behind the 37.9% rate in 2019. Latino students also saw an increase in reading proficiency of 2.3% over the 34.8% rate in 2022, but also still behind the 43.7% rate in 2019.
The reading and math proficiency rates for Black and Latino students, as well as students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students with disabilities, and English language learners, highlight wide-ranging disparities in New Jersey.
State school board members pressed the education department officials for strategies to address learning gaps evident in the scores.
“These gaps are just unacceptable,” said Arcelio Aponte, a state school board member, during the presentation. “We really need to think through a better strategy to try to close these gaps.”
State education department officials said several programs are in the works to help address the learning loss evident in the results. The department has a high-impact tutoring program set to be underway in January and a professional development program for educators teaching literacy to elementary grades called RAPID.
The state’s office of special education is also offering a professional development program this winter for educators to learn about new strategies for interventions, strategies for trauma-informed classroom instruction, and how to improve preschool outcomes, officials said. The state is also partnering with higher education institutions across the state to support these programs, they said.
State school board member Joseph Ricca said the answer to addressing disparities requires more analysis and discussion. In addition to increased tutoring and learning opportunities, officials need to be “making sure all of our children are fed every day” and “making sure that there’s mental health care services available for all of our children in all of our schools,” he said.
“When we talk about test scores we need to recognize that these are not a singular indicator to human success,” Ricca said. “Recognize that there are issues that we must address within the lives of our children in order to achieve the types of academic growth and results we’d like to see.”
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Jessie Gomez contributed reporting to this article.
Catherine Carrera is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Newark. Reach Catherine at firstname.lastname@example.org.