New Jersey’s assessments in language arts and math are a standout in comparison with other states’ tests, but its academic standards in those subjects lack clarity and specificity and provide insufficient guidance for improving instruction, a recent independent analysis concludes.
“New Jersey’s tests are quite challenging and comprehensive. They are the type of assessments that states ought to be striving for,” said Matthew Gandal, the vice president of Achieve, the Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit organization that evaluated the state’s system of standards and assessments. “The [assessments] have the capacity to drive improvements in teaching and learning, but the standards don’t communicate well enough what should be expected of students.”
While the standards are straightforward and jargon-free, according to the report, some lack a clear progression from grade to grade, and others are either too demanding or not rigorous enough for the intended grade level.
The mathematics standards for grade 8, for example, require that students “develop, understand, and apply a variety of strategies for determining perimeter, area, surface area, angle measurement, and volume.” While students are supposed to continue to master those skills through grade 12, the standards, in Achieve’s view, do not indicate the level of sophistication or growth of skills that is expected. Moreover, perimeter should be mastered before grade 8, the report says.
Time for Revision
State officials requested the study, which looked at the quality, rigor, and alignment of the standards and assessments in language arts and mathematics, in anticipation of a state school board mandated revision of the standards in those areas this spring. The Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers will review the state’s standards in social studies and science later this year.
“We are ready to update our standards, and we think the Achieve recommendations will greatly influence the various standards committees,” said Jay Doolan, the director of the office of standards and professional development for the state education department. “We wanted some outside feedback, and the Achieve process ... will provide us with specific information about where we should head in the next five years.”
The organization, which was set up by the nation’s governors and business leaders to assist states in creating world-class standards and testing programs aligned to them, recommends that the New Jersey standards provide more detail for teachers and parents about what students should know and be able to do. The guidelines, the report says, also should provide more sample problems to illustrate the level of complexity students should achieve in reading, writing, and math.
After revising the standards, the report suggests, state officials should make sure the next set of tests aligns with the expectations.
Early Reading, Middle Math
To help students meet the standards, New Jersey should consider launching an early-reading initiative and focus more attention on middle-grades mathematics, the report says.
When the state released its first set of standards five years ago, officials chose to issue more general guidelines for various grades with the intention of allowing districts to craft more detailed frameworks for meeting them. Once the standards are revised, however, they will likely be more specific while still allowing for local variations.
Achieve has conducted similar analyses in other states as part of its benchmarking initiative, which evaluates how the standards and assessments measure up to those of other high- performing states and nations. The initiative also examines how the states measure the knowledge and skills laid out in their standards.
In addition to New Jersey, states that have contracted with Achieve to conduct such analyses are Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. (“Minnesota’s Learning Standards Receive Mixed Review,” Dec. 6, 2000.)
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as In New Jersey Analysis, Tests Get High Marks, Standards Low Ones