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NCLB Outrages

30 Of N.J.'s 593 School Districts Failing Federal Standards

Ohanian Comment: Notice the games the headline writers play. About 5% of New Jersey school districts received warning that they need to improve student scores on standardized tests. The Feds like to point out they don't use the word failure to describe such schools.

MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. -- Thirty New Jersey school districts have two years to improve their students' scores on standardized tests or they could face consequences as dire as state takeovers, the state Education Department announced Monday.

The districts, including several of the largest in the state, were labeled by New Jersey as "in need of improvement." While New Jersey has released a list of similarly struggling individual schools before, this is the first time entire school districts have been identified.

"We're encouraged by the fact that the percentage is so low," Education Commissioner William L. Librera said Monday in a conference call with reporters.

About 5 percent of the state's 593 school districts received the warnings. Twenty-six of them were named Monday; four others have appeals pending and were not named. Additionally, three of the state's 50 charter schools were warned.

Many of the districts on the list -- Newark, Jersey City, Trenton, Camden and Paterson and Atlantic City -- are in poor cities. State education officials said those schools were already working on improvement plans under a court-ordered program that provides additional state aid.

But some districts landed on the list mainly because certain groups of students -- those with disabilities or African-Americans or Hispanics -- did not meet the standards.

While the number of districts given notice was low, the districts on notice are responsible for the education of more than one-sixth of New Jersey's public school students.

For now, the price for districts landing on the list is low. They must notify parents of their students of the designation, develop an improvement plan and put some of their federal funding toward professional development for teachers.

But for districts that make the list three years in a row, the penalty will be much stiffer. The state could take over districts or break them up. Administrators and teachers could be replaced. Federal funding could be taken away.

The decision on how to determine which districts qualify for the "in need of improvement" designation is up to each state, but the federal government requires states to provide the list under the often-criticized No Child Left Behind education reform law of 2002.

Librera said his staff set the complex criteria for the undesired list as fairly as it could. But he said it's the federal government education law -- not the state's -- that requires all students in each state be held to the same standards.

"These are not our rules and we are not necessarily endorsing the implementation of NCLB in terms of fairness," Librera said.

One district on the list sticks out.

Lenape Regional in Burlington County includes one school where high school juniors did better on the state's High School Proficiency Assessment than juniors in any other Burlington County school, said district spokeswoman Pat Milich.

But the district found itself warned, Milich said, in large part because students with disabilities in the district did not make required test scores.

"We're concerned about the public perception this may cause that our schools are failing," said Milich.

The news comes at an inopportune time for district officials. They're asking the public to vote yes Tuesday on a referendum to approve more than $70 million worth of work on the district's schools.

— Associated Press


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