"We put together a Math Incentive Committee of teachers and administrators to get our math scores up," Hetherington said last week. "We set our math scores as a districtwide goal. We wanted to have at least 75 percent of our ninth graders pass the test."
Gloucester City surpassed that goal this year. After 63.1 percent of the district's ninth graders passed the mathematics test in 1988, 83 percent passed when the test was given this spring. It was the largest improvement on the mathematics test in Camden and Gloucester Counties this year, according to figures released by the state Department of Education.
Overall, Gloucester City had 19.4 percent more students pass all three segments of the test this year.
It was one of many districts in the area that showed improvement in the Proficiency Test. Of 32 schools in Camden and Gloucester Counties, 30 had a higher percentage of ninth graders pass all three sections of the test than they did last year. The two districts whose scores dropped - Glassboro and Pitman - showed decreases of less than 2 percent from last year.
"By this time, many districts have put into place new techniques to help them better teach the skills stressed on the HSPT," said William Markiewicz, assistant to the superintendent in Pennsauken. "A few years ago, the state decided that certain skills are necessary to pass the test. You, as a district, have to decide if those skills are important."
Most districts in the area decided that they were. Many schools have instituted curriculum changes or pretesting to help their students pass the test, which is required for graduation.
Those types of changes have drawn criticism. Lawyer Marilyn Morehauser of the Education Law Center in Newark has said that some schools have become too basic-skills oriented. She said that because of the pressure to post high passing rates, schools have pushed students only to pass the Proficiency Test and have not stressed academics beyond the exam. The Education Law Center is a nonprofit organization that often defends minority and handicapped children in court cases against public schools.
The Proficiency Test is divided into three segments - reading, math and writing. The test has a multiple-choice format, with the student picking from four possible answers on each question. In the writing segment, the student is given 30 minutes to answer an essay question. That makes up 60 percent of the writing grade.
Getting 75 percent of the questions correct is passing in reading, 61 percent is passing in math and 77 percent in writing. Students are required toretake any segment they fail until they pass. With some exceptions, students may not receive a diploma until they pass all three parts of the test.
The state divides schools into socio-economic sets called district-factor groups. The purpose is to compare test results from districts with similar makeups. It evaluates each district based on unemployment, population density,
average income and other factors to figure out its group. Traditionally, schools in affluent, suburban areas have scored higher on the test than those in poor, urban areas.
Stanley Rabinowitz, the state director of the exam, defends the test. He says it forces schools to make sure each student has a fundamental grasp of math, reading and writing.
"A few years ago, educators, businessmen and administrators decided that these basic skills are necessary. A student builds any further education on those skills," Rabinowitz said. "If students in school cannot do these basic skills, the school has a problem."
To identify students who likely to have a problem with the test, some schools give a pretest to eighth graders. In Pitman, students with poor pretest scores are targeted for extra help before taking the Proficiency Test.
In Gloucester City, Hetherington said some students were sent to state-run special-help programs and teachers were sent to symposiums on techniques for teaching basic skills.
Area school administrators said that they felt these special programs did not constitute teaching solely for the test. Superintendents said students were drilled on more advanced skills beyond the basics stressed on the test.
Though area administrators said they did not put too much importance on the Proficiency Test, they said they felt increased pressure to produce high scores. Parents often use the test results to compare districts, and soon the test scores will become part of a state evaluation process.