In the 2014-15 school year, New Jersey replaced the existing statewide assessments—the NJASK (grades 3-8) and the HSPA (high school)—with the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) assessments administered to grades 3 through 11 in English language arts and math. The PARCC assessments evaluate students’ capability to use and show understanding of concepts instead of memorizing facts. The most recent results of the Lawrence Township School District English/language Arts PARCC scores demonstrate the success of the current literacy initiatives throughout the district.

For the school year 2016-17, Lawrence Township School District PARCC scores for grades 3 to 11 are, on average, 7 percent higher than the mean scores across the state of New Jersey, while the scores from some individual grade levels are as high as 9 percent, 12 percent and 16 percent above the state mean. Dr. Andrew Zuckerman, Director of Instructional Services for LTSD, correlates our above-average scores in the PARCC English/language Arts test with district initiatives in the areas of reading and writing across district schools and from the elementary grade to middle school and to high school.

For reading instruction, K-5 teachers have implemented a reading workshop model for the past three years that uses a combination of classroom grouping and reading strategies while also implementing either the Reading Fundamentals program (grades K, 4, and 5) or the Journeys program (grades 1, 2, and 3). Most often working with small groups of students, teachers present mini-lessons on aspects of literature or a strategy for young readers to become more proficient. This is often followed by time for Independent Reading and for students to share their responses to the reading with other students. Students may keep journals of their thoughts and feelings about what they have read and teachers conference one-on-one with students about individual reading development.

At the middle and high school levels, the close reading of texts across the curriculum is promoted using “Notice and Note” reading strategies. With the help of their teachers, students learn to improve their attention to the text, interpret what they read, and formulate notes that accurately reflect their understanding of the content. Teachers are furthering this in the upper grades by developing annotation skills to summarize, paraphrase or respond to texts while in the process of reading.

Writing Fundamentals is a program that teachers in Lawrence School District have implemented to develop writing skills in students from Kindergarten to 6th grade. Teachers provide explicit instruction to demonstrate why authors write and how they communicate their ideas effectively. Using the writer’s workshop model for the past 6 years, akin to the reading workshop model, teachers present mini-lessons on writing concepts that are then coupled with individual conferences where the teacher may ask the student questions to discuss her or his own writing process.

At the middle and high school levels, teachers connect the instruction given on note-taking and annotation while reading with asking students to use text-based evidence to support their writing. The concept that text-based evidence is essential to the writing process is emphasized in all classes, not just the literature or language arts classes. Timed writings are then given to assess students’ writing abilities and give feedback to teachers and the district about the needs of an individual or group of students.

Critical to the initiative’s success, the district has also engaged teachers in a series of professional development opportunities to enable them to implement the literacy initiatives effectively. Even before the school year began, K-6 teachers participated in The Summer Dive, a professional development program offered in the summer, not just to LTSD teachers but also to teachers across the state.

During the recent district-wide professional development days on Oct. 9 and Nov. 8, four of the school-wide sessions available to teachers were specifically focused on these literacy initiatives. Additionally, many of the district teachers are provided funding to take advantage of professional development opportunities outside of the district that specifically allow them to better understand and implement the literacy strategies used in the district.

While controversy continues to exist around the PARCC assessments, the Lawrence Township School District is using the state-mandated assessments to evaluate the effectiveness of their programs in language arts and math. And the average scores of our district students in the 7th through 10th grades are all above the state average by 9 percent, 8 percent, 16 percent and 12 percent respectively. One would have to agree with Dr. Andrew Zuckerman that what has been happening in the language arts classrooms for the past several years is noted in these strong scores.

Michelle King is a member of the Lawrence Township Board of Education.