By ERIN ROLL
The newly released New Jersey Student Learning Assessment scores indicate that Montclair students continue to perform above the state average in math and language arts for grades three through 12, but Montclair school officials are concerned with relatively flat test scores at the middle school level, and a somewhat low participation rate.
School officials are also concerned over an achievement gap between students of color, special education and economically disadvantaged students, and the rest of the student population.
On Nov. 18, Montclair released the data from the spring 2019 New Jersey Student Learning Assessment (NJSLA). The NJSLA is the revised version of the PARCC test, which was in use in New Jersey from 2015 to the fall of 2018. This spring marked the first time that NJSLA was administered in New Jersey schools.
The Board of Education and Montclair school officials are concerned by data that indicated no significant improvement in test scores for Montclair students over a three-year period, particularly among middle school students.
In 2019, 73 percent of Montclair students in third grade and up took the language portion of the NJSLA test, and 65 percent of students took the math test for their grade level.
The high school had a low participation rate however, with only one percent of freshmen and juniors taking the language test, and 26 percent of freshmen taking a math test.
The state placed a moratorium on juniors being required to take the language test, which could lead to lower participation. And participation could have been thwarted due in part to parts of the high school being closed off because of the stair collapse, said Jennifer Goforth, the district’s STEM director.
Because PARCC and NJSLA are no longer mandatory to graduate from high school, many high school students choose not to take the tests.
Ninety-six percent of sophomores took the language test, however.
In prior years, Montclair has seen resistance to standardized testing, particularly after the PARCC tests were introduced in the spring of 2015. That year, 39 percent of students, including 57 percent of Montclair High School students, opted out.
Those numbers are dropping, however. During the 2016-2017 school year, 28 percent of the total population opted out, while in 2015-2016, 27 percent opted out.
When a district falls below the 95 percent participation rate — more than five percent opts out — it affects the district’s overall proficiency rating. The more students who take the test, said Humanities Director Marcos Vargas, the more accurate the data will be in measuring how well the district is doing in educating students.
“I think the bottom line on this kind of data is, if we can increase participation we get better information on what’s going on instructionally,” said Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker. Increased participation will create more complete data and could be linked to a particular classroom and its curriculum effectiveness, he said.
Students in Montclair out-performed their peers at the state level on math tests, but the gap between the district and the state narrowed in middle school. On the Algebra 1 test, for example, 45 percent of Montclair middle school students met or exceeded expectations just slightly above the state average of 44 percent.
At the high school level, Algebra 1 test scores have declined since 2015. But geometry scores have seen significant improvement over the last year.
On the math tests, the percentages of students meeting or exceeding expectations was 64 percent in elementary school.
On the geometry test, 100 percent of Buzz Aldrin students met or exceeded expectations, compared to 88 percent of Glenfield students. Geometry scores were not listed for Renaissance. Parker said this was because when students at the school take two math classes, they take Algebra 1 or 2; there were no students taking geometry as their sole math class last year.
On the Algebra 1 test, the percentages of “met or exceeded expectations” was 58 percent at Buzz Aldrin, 41 percent at Glenfield and 66 percent at Renaissance.
Montclair saw a decline in the number of middle school students meeting or exceeding expectations on math tests from 2015 to 2019; for sixth-graders the percentage of students meeting expectations dropped from 56 percent to 49 percent.
It was also a concern to school officials that test scores, particularly in the middle schools, remained relatively consistent from 2016 to 2019. During those three years, performance on the language arts test hovered between 62 percent and 66 percent (this year) at the middle school level. At the elementary school level, 67 percent of the students met or exceeded expectations, and 75 percent of Montclair High School sophomores met or exceeded expectations in language. Scores were not available by the state for freshmen and juniors.
Board member Priscilla Church said she was worried about some of the scores remaining consistent from one year to the next, as well as some of the averages not being too far above the state average.
Parker agreed. “We really should see an upward trend,” he said.
The data also indicated that Montclair still has a substantial gap between test scores from black and Latino students, and from white and Asian students.
At the elementary school level, for example, 39 percent of black and African American students, and 57 percent of Hispanic or Latino students, met or exceeded expectations on the math test, compared to 67 percent of Asian students, 76 percent of mixed-race students and 76 percent of white students. On the language arts test, the met or exceeded expectations rate was 44 percent for black students and 60 percent for Latino students, compared to 69 percent of Asian students, 70 percent of multiple categories students, and 79 percent of white students.
At the middle school level, the gap widened, with 22 percent of black students and 35 percent of Latino students meeting expectations on the language test, and 41 percent of black students and 51 percent of Latino students meeting expectations on math tests.
In addition, economically disadvantaged students continue to perform significantly lower than their peers who are not considered economically disadvantaged, and special education students performed significantly lower than their general education peers.
The district is investing in professional development for teachers and curriculum development in both math and language arts. The district invested in Go Math, a math support program for elementary and middle school students, while at the high school level, the district invested in more Chromebooks for the Algebra 1 program.
Parker said Montclair will be reviewing its curriculum and evaluating its success in order to improve student performance on tests. He acknowledged that the district has had a difficult few years.
“I think if you keep doing the same things over and over again, you’re not going to end up with different results,” Parker said.