Parents Speak Out on Gap in Hopewell Valley Regional School District Elementary School Scores

May 7, 2012

 HOPEWELL — From the outside, this community is a picture of rural affluence. The houses are big and beautiful and the lawns are luscious and landscaped. There's fresh air and plenty of space.

But invisible lines have slowly been crisscrossing these properties for years, dividing the town in a way that its residents have only recently begun to see.

Local parents are raising concerns that two of the four elementary schools in the Hopewell Valley Regional School District have been consistently performing at a markedly lower rate than their counterparts.

They've pointed to New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJASK) scores for the schools' third-graders that show a gap among the different school averages of up to 28 points on math and language arts skills.

"To have four schools within eight miles of each other and force half the town to go to schools performing not as well because of what side of the street they live on, it's unfair," said Adam Finkel, one of the parents who raised an alarm about the issue. "To not know that you could buy a house up the street where the average student is doing 30 points better on these tests, I can't think of anything more important, to be honest, than that."

According to information compiled from the state Department of Education's website, third-graders at Stony Brook and Hopewell elementary schools averaged 265 and 253, respectively, on their NJASK math section scores in 2011. Bear Tavern third-graders averaged a score of 237 in the same category that year while their counterparts at Toll Gate elementary averaged 246.

The language arts averages for the third-graders last year came to 230 at Stony Brook, 223 at Hopewell, 212 at Bear Tavern and 216 at Toll Gate. The highest possible NJASK score on a given subject is 300, although students are considered to have a "passing score" when they reach 200 points.

The disparities become more pronounced when Hopewell's schools are compared to others in their District Factor Group (DFG) a state designation grouping together schools with similar demographics of students, parents and surrounding areas. The language arts scores for third-graders at Stony Brook, the best performing of the four schools, were higher than 91 percent of the other schools in Hopewell's DFG in 2011, while third-graders at Bear Tavern, the lowest-performing of the schools, did better than only 12 percent. Stony Brook third-graders placed in the 88th percentile for math scores in their DFG in 2011, while Bear Tavern third-graders placed in the seventh percentile.

The gaps were also present in fourth- and fifth-grade test scores in 2011. Fifth-graders at Hopewell Elementary were 80 points on the percentile scale above those at Toll Gate Elementary for language arts scores within the DFG, and Stony Brook fifth-graders were about 74 points on the percentile scale ahead of Bear Tavern fifth-graders in math.

The trend has steadily worsened over the years. In 2007, for example, 44 points on the percentile scale separated Stony Brook and Bear Tavern's cumulative third-grade scores still the highest and the lowest of Hopewell's four elementary schools at that point within the DFG grouping.

"In my opinion, every kid in this district deserves an equivalent education, and that is not happening, and has not been happening for at least seven years," said Kim Robinson, a parent of one child who is currently at Bear Tavern and one who graduated from the school last year.

"The fact that the huge disparity among the four schools has been crystal clear in the data for at least seven years, and no significant action has been taken until now, tells me that the principals, the director of curriculum and instruction, the superintendent and every member of the school board has been incompetent for at least the last seven years, and my kids were failed," Robinson said.

Further data show that by the time students reach eighth grade, their test scores equal out, regardless of which elementary school they first attended. The comparison has led some parents to believe teachers are causing the problem.

Parents from the lower-performing schools have gone as far as suggest that teachers from the other schools be transferred to Bear Tavern and Toll Gate or that parents be given the option of sending their children to Hopewell or Stony Brook.

Tom Smith, superintendent of the Hopewell Valley Regional District, has said that the idea to switch teachers or students around was not in his plans and would not solve the problem. Heidi Olson, leader of the Hopewell Valley Education Association teachers union, echoed the point, saying there are many reasons why a student could perform poorly on a test.

"It's a very common practice for us to look not only at the NJASK scores but to look at our students as a whole, at their growth from year to year in all content areas, because we believe there's more to a child than a single test score," she said. "It's a very complex situation and I respect that people have varying opinions, but I don't think it's a simple answer because I don't think it's a simple problem."

For their part, district officials have said that the disparities in the numbers were not as clear in recent years because the state requires them to file the information in terms of the percentage of students who passed and failed the test, not by score averages.

Smith said a DOE official told him the scores were meant only to be examined by their pass/fail percentages and that looking at the score averages was an incorrect way to view the data. But according to Finkle, that explanation makes little sense.

"The state Department of Education has posted several gigabytes of data for the public, all containing actual school-wide average score data," he said. "The NJASK is like the SAT and all other standardized tests in that the raw scores matter most — the pass rates are secondary measures."

Still, both Smith and Lisa Wolff, president of the Hopewell Valley school board, said they noticed the disparity some time ago from looking at the pass/fail averages. They said changes in the schools were implemented last year in an attempt to begin to correct the problem.

"I think that the issue is important and that the district has been aware of it and our administration has been taking steps to address it for as long as I have been on the board of education," Wolff, a three-year veteran of the board, said in an e-mail response.

"While we acknowledge the wide gap, since we know that there is a problem, I'd prefer that the lion's share of our resources should be spent on solutions."

The administration took that message to the parents in a series of four public meetings, one at each elementary school. The meetings attracted hundreds of parents throughout the district.

During the gatherings, Smith laid out the plan to align the schools by coordinating the varying schedules at each school, ensuring they all have the same curriculum and attempting to make sure that each institution has access to the same technologies. He said periodic evaluations would be taken to gauge the schools' progress and make that information available promptly. Smith also mentioned starting professional development programs at the schools and holding meetings among the teachers of each grade and subject to ensure they are all on the same page.

While he told parents he understood the situation was frustrating, he said he hoped to have all four schools within 10 percentile points of each other in five years.

"This is not an effort to bring all schools to the middle, this is about providing additional supports to those schools not performing as well as the other two," Smith said. "We want all four of our elementary schools to compete not only with the schools in our DFG but with the best schools in the state."