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NCLB Outrages

More Schools Make the List, and a Policy Is Questioned

TRENTON, Oct. 1 The state Department of Education announced on Wednesday that it was adding six more middle schools in New Jersey to the list, required by the federal government, of those schools in need of improvement.

But in making the announcement, the education commissioner, William L. Librera, once again joined a growing number of critics across the country who feel that the list and the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind unfairly labels schools as failing even when they are not.

"The implementation of this law, as we have said, is wrong and bad policy," he said.

Dr. Librera also criticized the federal standards because they are not evenly applied in the country. "Our standards are high and getting higher," he said.

Dr. Librera has spent the last two weeks meeting with educators and parents to tell them about how districts in New Jersey have been faring when judged by the federal standards. Hundreds of schools have been placed on lists with ominous-sounding names that present many corrective actions and eventually sanctions. Two weeks ago, for example, he reported that 75 percent of the state's 361 high schools would receive early-warning letters saying that they had performed badly in at least one of 40 categories that the federal government uses to judge how they are doing.

If the schools do not correct those actions after two consecutive years, they face a series of correction actions and eventually sanctions.

And this week, he said, 256 middle schools are classified as "in need of improvement," including the six announced Wednesday. The classification resulted from students' performances on the 2003 Grade 8 proficiency assessment exam.

Dr. Librera said that because of the strict federal standards, so many schools end up on these lists, and the public is incorrectly concluding that their schools are failing.

"People are taking one part of this very complex legislation and reducing it to simple things like failure," he said, adding that the result is a good deal of public anger and misunderstanding.

"Schools are not failing," he said.

Dr. Librera said that his office has begun offering more information about how schools end up on the lists.

Wednesday, he offered an example of a school with high academic test scores that could have ended up on the list, because fewer than 95 percent of students in a certain subgroup like those with special needs failed to take a test.

"I don't know of a clearer example of the shortcomings of this policy than to actually see that list and see how many fine schools, in our judgment, have been inappropriately characterized," he said.

Dr. Librera is not alone. The superintendent of the Los Angeles school system, Roy Romer, has called the law's "adequate yearly progress" assessment standard a "bad system."

In New Jersey, superintendents have been reeling from the reports of their schools landing on the lists, even in districts that are known for the quality of their education.

In Ridgewood, an upper-middle-class village in Bergen County, the school superintendent, John R. Porter Jr., said that he has spent the last three weeks explaining to parents why a high school with average SAT scores of 1174 was landed on the early-warning list.

"To me, this annual yearly progress list is ludicrous because it's not based on the same criteria across the board," Dr. Porter said. "It's going to force people to behave badly."

He said Ridgewood High School was on the list because three students in one of its subgroups, the special needs students, did not take a required test. One student had left the school by the time the test was given, and the two other students were in a private school, financed by the Ridgewood district, and that school did not give them the tests.

"This bill was morally the right thing to do," Dr. Porter said, "but it is being implemented extremely poorly."

— Maria Newman
More Schools Make the List, and a Policy Is Questioned
New York Times


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