Newark made very slight gains this year on state tests and its high school graduation rate, while student attendance showed bigger improvements, according to data published by the district.

Just under 35% of Newark students who took the 2019 state English tests met or exceeded grade-level expectations — a 0.6 percentage point increase over the previous year. In math, about 24% of students met the mark, a 0.9 percentage point improvement.

The district’s four-year graduation rate inched up by half a percentage point to 76.2% in 2019 according to the district’s calculation, which the state has not yet confirmed. The tiny graduation rate uptick follows an unexpected dip last year.

The district’s stubbornly high chronic absenteeism rate shrank by 4 percentage points last school year, to 28%. The lower absenteeism rate means that hundreds more students regularly showed up to school, a promising data point for a district intent on improving student attendance.

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The 2018-19 school year was Newark’s first under the leadership of Roger León, a veteran educator who became superintendent in July 2018. While experts say it is too soon to link student outcomes to the new leadership, León will be expected to drive improvements in the coming years. 

The data will also factor into an upcoming state review of the district’s performance and may be a consideration when the state decides early next year whether to grant Newark full local control of its schools.

Wilhelmina Holder, a longtime Newark education advocate, said it was hard to get very excited about the most recent test scores or graduation rate.

“It didn’t drop, so that’s good,” she said.  “But it’s not the kind of thing we dream about at night or that makes us do a dance.”

The reduction in absenteeism is more encouraging, she said. She also noted that León recently released a district-wide improvement plan and made some major staffing changes, including new principals at 15 schools, which will take time to bear fruit.

“Within three years, we should see some real movement,” she said. “I anticipate and hope and pray that will be the case.”

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Students in grades 3-11 took the state tests, formerly called PARCC and now dubbed the New Jersey Student Learning Assessments. The computerized tests are meant to show whether students are prepared for the next grade or course, and ultimately on track for college or careers.

While Newark’s scores continue to lag behind the state averages, they have risen steadily since New Jersey introduced new tests in 2015. Still, León has called Newark’s past achievement data “ugly” and “atrocious” and made it a rallying cry to say that every student will eventually meet the state’s benchmark on the tests. The minimal gains on this year’s tests illustrate how steep a challenge it will be for the district to achieve León’s goal.

“Even though this data is up, it’s not enough,” León said at a board meeting in August where he presented the 2019 scores.

School-level test scores are not available on the state education department website, but a spokesman said they will be posted “in the near future.” The state has also not announced official graduation rates for New Jersey and each district.

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Newark officials reported the projected graduation rate at a recent school board meeting. They said the slight increase resulted from the district tracking down about 100 students who had been added to their roster by the state. Such efforts to “clean” the enrollment data can boost graduation rates by removing students who left the district, which reduces the number of students the district is responsible for graduating. 

“Our graduation rate increased by half a percentage point and this is incredibly important because it’s really based on clean data,” said Rochanda Jackson, who oversees district policy, planning, evaluation and testing.

León added that the nearly 3 percentage point decline in the 2018 graduation rate was the result of Newark being held accountable for students who no longer attended its schools. He suggested without elaborating that other districts, which could include local charter schools, were to blame.

“There are school districts outside of what the Newark Board of Education governs over that have interesting strategies on their end,” he said at the Oct. 15 meeting. “And we’re calling them on all of them.”

Improving attendance has been one of León’s top priorities. He launched a back-to-school attendance campaign last year, hired more than 40 new attendance counselors and truancy officers, and created new data tools to help schools analyze attendance patterns. 

By the end of last school year, the attendance numbers had moved in the right direction. The percentage of chronically absent students, or those who missed 10 percent or more of school days, reached its lowest level in at least four years. And the average daily attendance rate for the year climbed by about 2 percentage points from the previous year, to 92%.

“When attendance goes up, student achievement goes up,” León said at an August board meeting.

Mark Weber, a lecturer at Rutgers University and an education policy analyst, cautioned against attributing small one-year changes in student performance data to any particular policy. For instance, a number of factors in and outside schools can affect the attendance rate, he said.

It may be several years before the results of policy changes under the district’s new leadership become apparent in data such as test scores, he added.

“There might be good things happening in the district that need to be celebrated, or there may be problems that need to be addressed,” he said. “But we’re probably not going to see it in one year, two years, maybe even three years of a test.”