NJ Puts New Labels on Schools for Test Scores, Graduation Rates

April 12, 2012

With No Child Left Behind essentially off the books, welcome to New Jersey’s new age and labels for school accountability.

The Christie administration yesterday released the final list of schools that will be highlighted under new accountability rules that put heightened attention on the very lowest and the very highest achieving schools, while giving leeway to the vast middle.

Replacing the labels of “schools in need of improvement” in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the new nomenclature will be Priority Schools, Focus Schools and Reward Schools. The lists total 370 schools in all, about a seventh of the state’s 2,500 schools.

The Priority Schools are the lowest of the low in terms of state test scores, the Focus Schools more about specific shortcomings in things like graduation rates and achievement gaps. Both will get new state interest, if not intervention, the administration said.

The Reward Schools are the top achievers, both overall and in terms of progress. Some may get money for their efforts.The Priority Schools are the lowest of the low in terms of state test scores, the Focus Schools more about specific shortcomings in things like graduation rates and achievement gaps. Both will get new state interest, if not intervention, the administration said.

The following is a breakdown of each new category, as well as who falls into them, including a few surprises.

Priority Schools (75 schools)

These are the schools that the new rules are most meant to address, those that fall at the bottom 5 percent in overall performance over the past three years, most of them in urban districts and serving predominantly poor and minority populations.

Overall, their proficiency rates in the state’s math and language arts tests were just 31 percent, or less than a third of all students being able to read, write or do math on grade level, according to the state.

They are not new to these lists, either, many of them highlighted for low achievement on every other accountability system over the years. Twenty-three are in Camden, a vast majority of all the schools in that district. More than a dozen are from Newark and Trenton, each.

Three are charter schools, including one the state is now seeking to close, the Emily Fisher Charter School in Trenton. Three others remain open for the time being, the subject of new state focus. They are Paul Robeson Charter School for the Humanities in Trenton, Liberty Academy Charter in Jersey City, and Freedom Academy Charter School in Camden.

For all the schools on this list, the options for the state are many, including replacing staff and leadership. New curriculum and mandated training are also on the list.

Focus Schools (183 schools)

This is the biggest group of the list, one that calls out schools for a variety of shortcomings.

Nearly 60 schools are included for having the biggest achievement gaps in the state, ones the administration said average over 40 percentage points. That means the highest achieving category of students typically white or Asian are seeing proficiency rates almost double the rate of achievement as the lowest.

And that’s where it starts to get interesting. Many of the schools on this list have big concentrations of low-income or minority students, but they are also places like Leonia Middle School in Bergen County, two schools in Montclair, and three in South Orange/Maplewood. Other suburban schools typically well regarded but making this list include those in South Brunswick, Metuchen and Westfield.

More predictable are the 37 high schools making the Focus Schools list for low graduation rates, virtually all of them urban or working class. According to the state, none of them have graduation rates higher than 75 percent under a new and long-awaited methodology the state is using to track individual students and how they graduated. The state has yet to release those numbers to the public.

The last category of Focus Schools are 88 schools with particularly low achievement levels in any one subgroup of students, be it minority or low-income or also those with special education needs. That, too, is almost entirely an urban list, sweeping up many of the schools that weren’t caught in earlier lists.

What the state will do for them is less aggressive than Priority Schools, targeting the specific shortcoming with requirements for additional training or programs.

Reward Schools (112 schools)

These are the top performers on the state’s tests, the first to get specifically called out for their high achievement levels. Those that are receiving special federal aid for serving low-income populations may get a little more as a reward, officials said, although the actual amounts are yet to be determined.

By and large, they are also the schools one would expect, either in the wealthier communities or drawing the top students in middle- or working-class districts.

They’re split into two groups, those with the highest achievement outright and those making the biggest progress. The latter is gauged by a new measure for student achievement being launched by the state called Student Growth Percentile, a controversial statistical method that compares students’ progress across their peers.

For highest achievement overall, Bergen County tops the list with 15 schools. Morris and Union counties are also well represented, although in part for the success of their countywide magnet schools run by their vocational and technical districts. Among urban schools labeled as Reward Schools, it’s also the magnet schools like McNair High School in Jersey City and Science Park High School in Newark.

Two charter schools are included: Robert Treat Academy Charter School in Newark and Classical Academy Charter School in Clifton. Ironically, Classical was recently put on probation by the state department for operational and fiscal problems.

The list of schools making the most progress is a bit more eclectic, with also a big contingent from Bergen County but also more middle-class communities like Woodbridge and Hackettstown. Two charters also made this list, Discovery Charter Schools Newark and Foundation Academy Charter School in Trenton.