Approximately two thirds of New Jersey's schools were placed on a state "early warning" list. According to the report released by the New Jersey Department of Education last week, 271 of the 361 high schools in New Jersey are not meeting federal standards in terms of scores on the 2003 High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) test.
The status of these schools falls under the auspices of the federally mandated "No Child Left Behind" Act. The NCLB Act, enacted in January 2002, "requires that all states establish standards for accountability for all school districts in the states. Furthermore, it calls for the inclusion of all students, even students who may have been excluded or exempted from participating in the state assessment program in the past."
As part of the NCLB Act, schools must show Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Said State Education Commissioner William Librera in a Department of Education press release last week, "It is important to remember several contexts when discussing AYP. First, we remain concerned about the strict timelines that the federal government has issued. Second and more important, the federal government has required a label for these schools. That label is 'in need of improvement'."
Librera added, "Our biggest concern remains that these schools identified as 'in need of improvement' are unfairly called 'failing'. When one looks at the schools - whether they are identified as 'early warning' or 'in need of improvement' - one sees that some of the very best schools in the state, let alone in the nation, have been identified."
And certainly, some of the schools included on the list are surprises. Northern Valley Regional High Schools in Bergen County, recognized as one of the nation's best, are on the "early warning" list. Ridgewood High School in Bergen County, located in one of the most affluent towns in New Jersey, is also on the list.
One might question how this happened, but to arrive at an answer one would have to look at the criteria. According to the New Jersey State Department of Education, there are 40 "indicators" that schools are judged on Once one gets past the legal wording of the state's explanation of the NCLB Act, the last point means that students who are either recent immigrants to the United States and are classified as "limited English proficient" (LEP) or students that have certain learning disabilities, are now required to take the same test as students without such hindrances.
And it is this point that has ruffled feathers amongst New Jersey's educators.
UC, WNY speak out
Principal Dave Wilcommes of Union Hill High School in Union City complained about the report last week. Said Wilcommes, "I would say that the report and the criteria it's based on is extremely unfair. Name me a test where if you miss even one question, you're considered 'failing'? I feel like we're being set up to fail. They're putting up so many roadblocks, it takes away your motivation. And my concern here is that when the students hear about this, it may have an effect on them. If two thirds of the state's high schools are on the list, then maybe it's not the schools that have the problem."
Added Wilcommes, "The 'No Child Left Behind' Act sounds great; it makes a nice headline, but it creates more questions than it answers. There are just certain kids that have disabilities that preclude them from doing well on a test such as this (HSPA). It creates 'perceptual damage'."
The NCLB Act, an initiative of President George Bush, is seen by many as having unrealistic goals and an almost insurmountable timeline. The NCLB Act calls for "100 percent proficiency" (in math and language) by 2014. Eleven years may sound like a long time, but the sheer number of children involved in this initiative can boggle the mind.
Administrator and Supervisor of Middle and Secondary Education for the West New York Board of Education Geraldine Stengel took a somewhat more even-handed view of the report, saying in a telephone interview, "I am not sure that the state is totally to blame here. Because of Title I funding that many districts are receiving from the federal government, the schools in these districts are under even more pressure to abide by the federal rules."
Continued Stengel, "My feeling is that you're not going to find smaller, more rural schools on this list. If you're a larger school, you're automatically under the gun."
Stengel is referring to the aspect of the report that states that any "sub-group" of fewer than 20 students is not statistically significant and therefore was not counted for the purposes of the report.
And while Stengel's assertion that smaller, rural schools do not appear on the list is technically inaccurate (many high schools in Burlington, Cumberland, Gloucester and other rural counties appear on the list, although they generally performed at the top of the list and sometimes missed the cutoff by one indicator), it is urban schools that appear on the list the most times and generally with the worst scores.
Union Hill and Emerson in Union City scored respectively 26 out of 40 and 29 out of 40. Memorial in West New York fared the best with a 35 out of 40 score.
Stengel added, "We're doing as much as we possibly can for these students. We're all doing the best we can. The sanctions involved after two or three years of AYP are quite strict. (According to the NCLB Act, if a school doesn't perform to federal standards after two years, parents can legally transfer their children to other districts. Severe fines can also be imposed.) These won't necessarily have positive consequences. I don't really think that's the way to go about it."