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How will Newark combat learning loss? Schools chief outlines strategies, but gives few details

A teacher helps a student wearing a red top with a math problem.
More tutoring, math initiatives, and new textbooks are among the tactics Newark plans to use to combat learning loss. But details have been sparse on implementation and how programs will be funded.
Erica Seryhm Lee for Chalkbeat

Just days away from a new school year where students will be attending class fully in-person for the first time in 17 months, Newark Superintendent Roger León gave teachers a glimpse at how severely the pandemic affected students’ academic progress.

During a virtual staff convocation this week, Leon shared student performance data showing a significant percentage of students lost ground in math, reading, and other areas based on standardized tests used to measure student progress throughout the year. Students also struggled with SATs, PSATs, and AP exams, scoring below average benchmarks.

The event featured several student performances, well wishes to the staff from state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz and Mayor Ras Baraka, and even a simulated mic drop from the superintendent after mention of a new elementary school named after former First Lady Michelle Obama. León also previewed strategies the district will employ to help close achievement gaps widened during the pandemic: More tutoring, math initiatives, new textbooks, expanded partnerships with higher education institutions.

But he stopped short of offering details about how some programs would be implemented or paid for. Some will be funded through pandemic relief money the district has received, he said while not specifying which ones, and others have financial support from donations.

“We understand that these are trying times,” León said, “but we also understand that when this pandemic passes – and it will, my good people – our students need to be ready to compete with their counterparts.”

Newark Superintendent Roger León speaks at a podium, wearing a blue suit and Newark hat, during a virtual convocation.
Newark Superintendent Roger León previewed some strategies for addressing learning loss at the 2021 staff convocation, which was held virtually.
Screenshot by Patrick Wall

New Jersey, like many other states, canceled state standardized tests last year. To measure student performance, Newark used MAP Growth Assessments, created by nonprofit testmaker NWEA, to measure math, reading, language usage, and science. The vast majority of K-8 students took the exams, data shows.

Kindergarteners took the assessment in the winter and spring, students in grades 1-8 took the exam in the fall, winter, and spring, and grades 9-11 only took them in the fall but took college-readiness exams later in the year. The district publicly released data on learning loss in August, months after fall results had shown troubling signs.

Newark students in grades 2-8 struggled especially with math and reading, based on spring 2021 test score data that Chalkbeat obtained through a public records request. Only 9% met state expectations in math and 11% met state expectations in reading, Chalkbeat reported.

The results are only estimates and based on pre-pandemic benchmarks that don’t account for the disruptions to learning that Newark students faced last year.

A district analysis shared at the convocation compared students’ fall 2020 and spring 2021 results, identifying which percentage of students maintained proficiency (as in, they met state standards), improved or declined over the last year.

In math, 14.7% of students improved their score from fall to the spring. Meanwhile, 47.3% of students maintained the same level they had in the fall and 38.1% of students moved down a level, showing a decline in academic progress for those students over the last year.

Similarly in reading assessments, 47.8% of students maintained the same score level, while 34.4% declined and only 17.8% improved.

“We clearly know that we have the work cut out for us,” León said at the convocation. “We’ve outlined what the problem is, so what is the solution?”

Tutoring and more

This year, León said, the district will be updating and “strengthening” curriculum and using data to drive improvement efforts instead of “using data on the edges of our efforts.”

The district is offering 21 Advanced Placement programs this year, college-level courses and exams offered in high school that grant students college credit if they pass a rigorous test at the end of the year. Few students opted to take the test at the end of last school year; of those who did, only one in four passed the exam.

Over the summer, León said the district provided teachers opportunities “to learn this course better” by offering “Summer AP Institutes,” a professional learning course for educators.

León also announced there will be an “Above 1,000 Campaign” this coming year to encourage students to score high in the SATs, but he didn’t explain how this would roll out.

Last school year, the average SAT math score was 472 out of a possible 800 in Newark, 60 points below the college-readiness benchmark. For English, the score was 469, or 11 points below the college-readiness benchmark.

“We’re going to work really, really hard to make sure that they are provided [with] the most incredible, instructional program to get them [to 1,000],” he said.

The district will also continue dual enrollment programs, which allow high school students to take college courses at Essex County College, Rutgers University, and New Jersey Institute of Technology. New this year, University and Central high schools will offer a dual enrollment program with Howard University, a historically Black research university.

There will also be more opportunities for tutoring this year for all students, the district chief said.

Teachers have been allocated an hour every day for tutoring, he added.

The Lafayette Street School for grades pre-K-8 also trained a group of students in the National Junior Honor Society with skills to provide tutoring support for their peers, said León, who indicated this program would start at other schools.

“This is not something that would be a hard lift for schools to do but we’ve dedicated dollars to accomplish this goal,” he said, not specifying how much funding this would receive.

This coming year, algebra will be offered for eighth-graders at 14 schools for the first time in years, León said. The district plans to expand the offering to all district schools that have eighth graders next September as part of its “All Kids to Calculus” program, he added.

The district purchased new textbooks for this school year in math, science, health, and more, and adopted new curriculums across subjects and grades, including theater and music for grades pre-K-2.

“Our strategy is to focus on really good instruction,” he said.

Though there will be no remote or hybrid options this school year, teachers should be prepared to transition to remote instruction if their classroom has to be quarantined, the superintendent said.

“It’s extremely important that we stay focused on the work, that we stay calm as it relates to the realities of the moment and that we just are mindful that the health and safety of our students and staff will always be the priority over everything else,” León said. “That gets us into this new normal.”

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