Newark and Jersey City test scores rise

Strong gains are made in fourth-grade language arts and math

Tuesday, June 22, 2004


Star-Ledger Staff

In the state’s two largest school systems, Newark and Jersey City students showed solid gains in most of their statewide tests this spring, according to preliminary scores released to the districts this month.

For the first time, a majority of Newark fourth-graders were found to be proficient in both language arts and math, local officials said. Scores were up on every test, they said, and were strongest in the elementary schools, where 62 percent passed in language arts and 54 percent in math. Among general education students, the numbers were even better.

“For us to get 70 percent general education to be proficient in language arts is really something,” said Superintendent Marion Bolden. “I think for the first year as a district in general, we can feel very satisfied with the progress.”

Jersey City officials also reported strong gains in the fourth-grade test, where two-thirds of its children passed the language arts test. Nearly two-thirds of high school juniors also passed their language arts exam, a 5 percent increase.

Jersey City saw gains in all but its eighth-grade language arts scores, which dropped just below 50 percent proficient, officials said.

Statewide scores have not yet been released, so comparisons yesterday were impossible, and state officials said further review will be required before results are made public.

Officials were even reluctant to say whether results in general had improved. Newark officials said they were told most of the statewide scores rose between 1 percent and 5 percent.

Testing experts warned against reading too much into any given year’s results, given the potential for wide swings from year to year as different sets of children are tested.

But the news has nevertheless been mostly upbeat this month as the latest numbers get distributed to schools, especially in urban districts like Newark and Jersey City, where student performance comes under particularly intense scrutiny.

These and 28 other needy districts fall under the state Supreme Court’s Abbott vs. Burke ruling of 1998 in which hundreds of millions of dollars in new programs have been ordered to raise the achievement of students.

“I think this is great news for Abbott,” said Michael Littlejohn, the testing director in Jersey City.

Other Abbott districts also said yesterday that their scores had been on the rise, including in Passaic and Irvington. New Brunswick officials said their results were more mixed but also generally improved in the elementary schools, especially in math.

Among its general education students, Irvington saw its fourth-grade language arts scores rise nearly 10 percent to 70 percent deemed proficient in 2004, more than double rate of 1999. The fourth-grade math scores were up to 48 percent proficient, also more than double that of five years ago.

Among the urban districts, several officials said the positive results reflect a certain comfort level setting in with the Abbott edicts, which include universal preschool, vast curriculum and instructional changes, and new school construction.

Newark officials said they are starting to especially reap the benefits from the mandated preschool.

“That’s been in place long enough that at least some of those first children are starting to take the state assessments,” Bolden said.

More difficult has been the court’s mandate for schools to adopt “whole school reform” instructional models, officials said, but schools have adapted and seized on the most successful strategies.

“There is becoming a more consistent academic focus,” said Don Marinaro, Newark’s assistant superintendent in charge of its West Ward schools. “We are taking data, looking at what are the strengths and weaknesses of what we’re doing. … I think we are really hitting our stride in terms of taking away the best of the (Abbott) models.”

But Marinaro pointed out that while they are improving, the eighth grade and high school numbers are still not where officials would like them to be. Only 35 percent passed the eighth-grade language arts test and 44.5 percent passed the math, while 44 percent passed the high school language arts test and just 28 percent passed math.

“We are not looking at blips but for consistent growth,” he said. “And we still have a long way to go.”

John Mooney covers education. He can be reached at, or (973) 392-1548.

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