Education in the Media
N.J. Unveils New Report Cards to Measure School ProgressNovember 16, 2011
The Christie administration unveiled plans Wednesday to track each school’s progress, intervene in the worst and help families un¬erstand their own schools’ strengths and flaws.
Governor Christie and Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf came to Secaucus High School to promote the state’s bid for a break from the most onerous provisions of the Bush-era law known as No Child Left Behind.
That law requires all students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014, a mandate that many educators called unrealistic and unfair.
New Jersey officials want to stop using the No Child Left Behind system of labeling a school as “failing” even if only one small group of students can’t meet targets on state tests. The Obama administration recently promised waivers to states that showed better plans to measure student growth, fix troubled schools, close
achievement gaps, and graduate teens ready for college and careers.
This month 56 percent of New Jersey’s schools failed to make benchmarks under No Child Left Behind. Getting a waiver would allow for “a much more sensitive and nuanced way of talking about the successes and deficiencies of our schools,” Cerf said. “It would allow for much more focused interventions, particularly on those that are truly failing….there are hundreds of schools in this state where frankly we are engaged in a moral crisis where kids are just not being given an equal chance in life.”
If the waiver comes through, the state would have more freedom in how it can use federal funds to help schools turnaround.
As the guidelines require, New Jersey would divide schools into categories. The bottom 5 percent would be “priority schools”; “focus schools” would include those with major challenges and large achievement gaps; and “reward schools” would get financial bonuses for great results.
The lowest performers would face remedies, such as replacing the principal, dismissing ineffective staff or lengthening school days. In the most extreme cases, the state could close schools or withhold money.
Some superintendents applauded any move to free schools from the No Child Left Behind stigma of being labeled as failing when only a few students (often those with disabilities) were struggling.
In Waldwick, the Julia A. Traphagen School was labeled this month as not making adequate progress under the federal program. Under the state’s new measuring system, the school is deemed a “reward school,” a model for others to follow. Patricia Raupers, superintendent in Waldwick, called the new accountability plan “a step in the right direction.” She said No Child Left Behind had “so many punitive features that really hurt and demoralized school districts and people who work in schools.”
In New Milford, however, Superintendent Michael Polizzi expressed skepticism about the new
blueprint. In his district, David E. Owens Middle School would be deemed a “focus” school, but he said that designation was undeserved because the school had made strides in recent years. Polizzi also questioned whether the department of education could deliver on its promise to give guidance tailored to individual schools’needs.
“I don’t know if I can really trust advice from the state given the direction of the DOE,” Polizzi said. “I’m very dubious…It seems like much of the help they give is one size fits all.”
The New Jersey Education Association also has criticized the new accountability plans for focusing too heavily on testing, calling it No Child Left Behind “on steroids.”
New Jersey officials expect to hear in January whether they will get a waiver. Even without one, Cerf said he aims to impose many of these steps, including the new system for tracking schools.
The plan includes a new version of report cards for individual schools, which will include students’ proficiency on annual state tests but also several new measures, such as the year-to-year growth of different racial and economic groups, more data on SAT scores, and passing rates on Advanced Placement tests. It will even spell out each school’s rates of dropouts and graduation, broken down by racial groups, the disabled and the poor.
The reports will rank schools statewide and compare them to “peer” schools with similar demographics. The administration plans to convene a working group of educators, parents and school board members to determine the indicators’ various weights in the new scoring system, which would be introduced in the 2012-13 school year.
At Wednesday’s press conference, Christie also made a plea for bipartisan cooperation in passing his legislative goals, including overhauling tenure, adding merit pay, weakening seniority rules and expanding school choice. He stressed that his agenda for fixing schools largely matched that of three Democrats – Cerf, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama.
“It’s really not a partisan political issue, it’s a common sense issue,” Christie said.
Other highlights of New Jersey’s announcement include:
- Even schools that are not targeted for intervention will be given benchmarks for student growth and required to hold public discussions about their plans for achieving those goals
- The education department will extend for a second year the pilot project for devising teacher evaluations, so that a broader group of schools can refine the evolving methods in 2012-13.
- The state will hold an annual conference where teachers in top performing schools can show their practices to those in struggling schools.
- If a waiver is granted, low-performing schools would get more flexibility for using federal aid for disadvantaged students. That money could go toward longer school days, Saturday classes or tutoring, for example.