N.J. Education System Must Focus on Youngest Students, Commissioner Cerf Says

September 19, 2012

JACKSON — The state Department of Education will focus its efforts this year on some of the state’s youngest students as a way to improve performance across grade levels, Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said today.

Cerf told a gathering of about 400 school administrators that by getting more third-graders reading proficiently, for example, other problems could be solved, such as lagging test scores and the "achievement gap" between wealthy and poor students or children of different races.

Cerf also unveiled plans for a new "early literacy initiative," which will develop a plan to ensure all students are reading at grade level by the end of third grade; and piloting kindergarten readiness assessments in seven districts.

"If you could get every child reading by third grade, a lot of the issues would disappear," he said.

Addressing a convocation at Jackson Liberty High School hosted by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, Cerf discussed the need to improve standardized test scores, specifically targeting third-graders.

He said 2012 test scores showed 66.7 percent of third-graders were proficient in language arts; the goal for 2013 is to get 2,035 more third graders reading at the proficient level, increasing the proficiency level to 69.2 percent.

"The failure to be able to read at that milestone is typically predictive of future challenges," Cerf said. The biggest focus will be on low-performing schools. "We want to make sure we are prioritizing resources and supports for the schools that have the most needs," he said.

Some administrators said Cerf is right to focus on elementary reading.

"The student who doesn’t read effectively by the end of third grade will have trouble for the rest of their educational career," said William Zylinski, district supervisor for the Lacey Township schools, adding that his district has always focused efforts on third grade language arts.

"Most districts do that," he said.

Cerf also discussed plans to create an "Innovation Zone" that would embrace technology and other innovative efforts in schools, and talked up efforts to cut regulations in the schools.

Deregulation efforts are already under way by the state Board of Education, which earlier this month accepted a task force report recommending 428 regulatory changes, and 46 legislative changes, affecting everything from the number of janitors required in a school, to the availability of vouchers for school choice.