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Why Poverty, Disability Are Baked into Student Test Scores

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Starting next year,  teachers in New Jersey are going to be held accountable for how much their students learn. But Governor Chris Christie’s teacher tenure reform plan  raises questions about whether it will punish those willing to teach the neediest students.

At least a third of of the teacher evaluations in New Jersey will be based on how much teachers raise student test scores on the NJ ASK – New Jersey’s standardized test. But some question whether the use of standardized tests fairly reflects how well teachers are doing their job.

If teachers don’t raise test scores enough it’ll affect their overall evaluation, which also includes principal and peer observations. A low score for a couple years in a row and teachers could lose their tenure and their jobs.

That has teachers in schools with a large percentage of low-income or disabled children nervous.

"I teach and then I re-teach," said Nicola Hendricks, a 5th grade teacher at Quitman Street Community School in Newark.

In one lesson, her students struggled with fractions because they don’t understand some of the words Hendricks uses to describe them – words like “horizontal” and “vertical.”

“I have to move forward and then I go back a little,” Hendricks said. “It’s challenging.”

Hendricks, who has been teaching for about seven years, is feeling the pressure to show big gains.

“The kids are low-performing,” she said. “I’m doing the best that I can. I definitely think there will definitely be growth but that’s kind of my fear, doing the best that I can but does it meet the needs of the state?”

About 95 percent of the students at her school live below the poverty line. And she’s worried she could be penalized for factors teachers have no control over – Like home conditions, for example, or whether a student has a disability, which affects student performance.

But New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf says the state's model accounts for those factors already.

Explaining New Jersey’s Teacher Evaluation System

Students in New Jersey are going to be placed in peer groups with students who scored similarly on the previous year’s test. They will get a score based on how much better or worse they do than others in their peer group.

“You are looking at the progress students make and that fully takes into account socio-economic status,” Cerf said. “By focusing on the starting point, it equalizes for things like special education and poverty and so on.”

The Education Commissioner argues students who come from low-income areas will likely score similarly on the previous year's test, so he says they will likely end up in the same peer group where they are only compared to others like them. Same with students with disabilities, or students who come from high-income areas.

“The assumption he’s making is that the initial score embeds all of the background disadvantage of the student, therefore there’s no reason to use other measures for accounting for that,” said Bruce Baker, a professor st the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. 

Baker studies teacher evaluation models and argues the state’s system doesn’t accurately isolate the role a teacher has on learning.

Under the new evaluation system students who are in the same classroom will be ranked based on their progress. The score of the student who falls in the middle of the list will become the one score that makes up a third of a teacher’s evaluation.

“Therein lies the huge part of problem," Baker said. "Because teachers have totally different mixes of kids."

About 25 percent of the students at Quitman Street Community School are in special education – compared to the national average of 13 percent.

Baker says classrooms with higher concentrations of students with special needs or disadvantaged students would alter that middle score teachers are evaluated on.

That could discourage teachers from taking jobs at school districts in low-income areas, said Steve Wollmer, spokesperson for the state’s largest teacher’s union, the New Jersey Education Association.

“You have an evaluation system that says that if you can’t raise their scores fast enough, or as much as people think you should, maybe you’re going to lose your job. That’s not exactly a stimulus to work in those districts,” Wollmer said.

Teachers who work in schools with the highest achieving students in the state could also be vulnerable, he says, because test scores can only improve so much.

Only about 15 percent of the teachers in New Jersey will be evaluated on standardized tests. They’re the only ones who teach a subject the state tests.

Social studies teacher Jon Lippi is among the 85 percent of teachers who will not be evaluated on standardized tests next year. He teaches the 6th grade at Robert Morris School #18 in Elizabeth, NJ. But he doesn’t consider himself lucky.

The state is transitioning to a new standardized exam, called PARCC, which will test more subjects by 2015.

“I feel for my fellow teachers,” Lippi said. “And for someone like myself, I know that the tests will come.”