It’s NJSLA season– that time of year when the results of the spring New Jersey Student Learning Assessment come out. A statewide test administered to all public school students in grades three to nine, the test acts as a measurement for a district’s performance. The results can inspire celebration or consternation, especially as parents and educators eye the scores for evidence of lingering learning loss.
In Frelinghuysen’s case, the results present plenty of reasons to celebrate.
Chief school administrator Jarlyn Veras summarized the data from Frelinghuysen’s spring 2023 NJSLA results, which showed the results for last year’s third to sixth graders in english language arts (ELA), math and science.
On the NJSLA, ELA and math are scored between 650 and 850. The goal is to have a majority of students score a 750 or higher– that level is classified as Level 4 – Meeting Expectations.
The third grade stood out as the one grade at Frelinghuysen that struggled with the ELA section. Grade three scored a collective average of 726, below both the 750 cutoff and the state average for grade three ELA. On the other hand, grade three’s collective average in math was 752, beating both the state average and the 750 cutoff.
The three remaining grades posted strong results on both the ELA and math sections. Every class in fourth to sixth grade scored a collective average above 750 in ELA, beating the statewide average, too. The strongest performance came from the fourth grade (today’s fifth graders). In that grade, 71% of students met or exceeded expectations, with a class average of 765.
The three oldest grades posted a largely stellar performance in math as well. Once again, all three grades exceeded the state average. Grades four and six also crossed the 750 finish line, with a class average of 761 in grade four and 756 in grade six. Though still scoring higher than the state average, grade five fell below the 750 cutoff with a class average of 742.
As for science, the results were a mix of good and bad news. Only grade five took the science portion, since the NJSLA science section is only required for grades five, eight and 11. Unlike the other two sections, the science test is graded on a 100 to 300 scale.
The good news: Frelinghuysen students beat the state average on grade five science.
The bad news: that state average is alarmingly low. Statewide, students seem to be struggling with the science section. In fact, only 27% of grade five students in New Jersey met or exceeded expectations in science on this year’s test, with a statewide average of 166. So, even though Frelinghuysen can boast a higher average than the state, that’s not a high bar to beat.
Veras acknowledged that the other districts in the area, and districts statewide, are trying to figure out the puzzle of New Jersey’s low science scores. Some educators have argued that elementary school science focuses on the application of scientific ideas, incorporating hands-on activities and active experiments. The NSJLA test, however, focuses more on conceptual knowledge, a misalignment with actual instructional practice.
In the specific case of Frelinghuysen, Veras pointed to another concrete factor: instructional time. Frelinghuysen students spend 90 minutes each day learning both ELA and math, but science is only taught two to three times a week.
“Instruction is what makes kids learn,” Veras said. “If you don’t have the same instructional time as you have in ELA and math, you can’t expect to see the same outcome.”
Veras detailed some strategies that Frelinghuysen plans to pursue, including professional development for teachers, strengthening science instruction, enhancing the interventions available for students with learning differences or other needs, and continuing to adhere to the new reading instructional program that was introduced last year.
When board member Lori Peterson asked about the new program, Veras explained that it was a movement away from the balanced literacy approach championed by Columbia University professor Lucy Calkins in favor of science-based reading instruction that includes phonics and explicit decoding instruction.
Lucy Calkins and her influential reading approach came under fire in recent years after education experts pointed out that balanced literacy ignores decades of research on how children learn to read. Her organization, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, has been dissolved, and Columbia has placed her on indefinite sabbatical. Over the past three years, districts around the country have transitioned away from her approach and adopted practices that are better supported by educational research.
Frelinghuysen implemented its own science-backed reading approach last school year. Did the new pedagogical strategy help create the strong ELA scores seen in grades four to six?
“What makes children achieve are instructional practices,” Veras said. “A good teacher, with any program, is going to get good results. I’m proud of the instructional strategies that our teachers use. So I think those results… yes, [come from] the program’s influence, but really, it’s the instructional practices of the teachers.”
The meeting concluded with a reminder of this week’s special scheduling considerations. There will be early dismissals on Tuesday, November 7, and Wednesday, November 8, for parent-teacher conferences and no school on Thursday, November 9, and Friday, November 10, for the NJEA Conference.
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.