The NJ Department of Education released its annual report cards this month, which assign a grade to every school district based on PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colle and Careers) exam proficiency;graduation rates; and chronic absenteeism. Scores should be taken with a big grain of salt, as school districts vary greatly in factors that affect student performance. Bayonne’s score is not great, falling in the 21st percentile of school districts in the state. The district’s high rate of absenteeism concerns administrators and trustees.
“Those numbers are not encouraging,” said Bayonne Board of Education (BBOED) Trustee Charles Ryan at a workshop meeting on Feb. 1. “Chronic absenteeism is on our radar, and participation on the PARCC is out of our control.”
Chronic absenteeism is defined by a student missing more than 10 percent of class time during a school year, or more than 18 days, for both excused and unexcused absences. At Bayonne High School, about 23 percent of students were chronically absent in the 2016-2017 school year, far above the Department of Education’s set target of 14.3, and the state average of roughly 10 percent.
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The ugly truth about the education system in the United States is front and center in the data. Students of color in Bayonne are more likely to miss class and score lower on the PARCC exams than their white counterparts, and graduate at a lower rate, according to the report. Bayonne High School narrowly met its PARCC target of 24.7 percent of testers meeting or exceeding PARCC score expectations, compared to 43.5 percent statewide, according to the data.
NJ is one of only six states that still implements PARCC testing, but it is not mandatory. Since 2010, PARCC has lost 20 member states. Parents in Bayonne, like in many other cities across the country, view PARCC tests unfavorably. Scores are often seen as an inaccurate barometer of academic readiness because of the 15-year program’s widely varying assessment quality.
“There are certain families where the child becomes the adult in the family,” said Interim Superintendent Michael A. Wanko.“They’re responsible to bring siblings to school, or to a court date, or a doctor’s appointment.”
Nationwide, 11 percent of school districts report chronic absenteeism rates of 30 percent or more. According to a 2016 report from Attendance Works, an organization that seeks to reduce student equity gaps by reducing chronic absenteeism, absence rates are directly correlated with socioeconomic conditions.
Wanko acknowledged the challenge of a school district solving structural inequalities in society. Services that cities once provided to help bridge the opportunity gap between rich and poor, white communities and communities of color, have been gutted over the last four decades, effectively leaving public schools with those responsibilities and scarce funds to meet them.
“That’s why we’re focusing on a cultural change here,” Wanko said. “We only have them for a short time of the day, and in that period of time we have to infuse the importance of being in school every day.”
PARCC tests have been controversial across the country, with many states, like NJ, allowing students to opt out. Bayonne scores low partly due to students here being more likely to opt out of taking the exam compared to suburban school districts.
The math section of the PARCC exam is of particular concern, with only 24.4 percent of testers meeting or exceeding state expectations, compared to 43.5 percent of testers statewide meeting or exceeding expectations.
“Those numbers are not encouraging.” – BBOED Trustee Charles Ryan
Not a walk in the PARCC
“Mathematics is more challenging because it is one of the subjects you build on, so if you miss something you fall behind,” Wanko said.
Trustees talked for hours in closed committee about ways to achieve higher math achievement levels in the district over the long term. Trustees and administrators agree on the need for early intervention and will be imposing higher math standards on grades 4-8.
Right now, students in grades 4-8 can fail a year of math and still move on to the next year. Changes being considered include required remedial or summer school courses for underachieving studentsas well as one-on-one tutoring.
“Sometimes a child is just having difficulty with a certain concept, so that needs to be taught differently to that child,” Wanko said. “Not everyone learns at the same pace or in the same way.”
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.