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Department of Education Rolls Out New Program to Help At-Risk Students

Educational proficiency plan aims to remedy problems before they become incurable.

With testing for the new school year about to begin, New Jersey is rolling out its latest attempt to reach students who are at risk of failing the high-stakes exam.

The state Department of Education recently distributed to districts a new template for tracking and remediating students who are likely to run into trouble with the high school exam, currently required for graduation.

The Educational Proficiency Plan (EPP) will be required of all students who fail either the math or the language sections of the state's eighth-grade test or either section of the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA).

Where Students Fall Short

Potentially affecting tens of thousands of students, the new nine-page EPP would document the specific areas where a student has fallen short on the exams and the steps being taken to remediate those skills in time to pass the high school test his or her senior year.

“We are no longer leaving it to chance, and we are providing a road map that will help schools keep track of these kids,” said Willa Spicer, the deputy education commissioner.

The new system comes on the heels of the state toughening the scoring for the alternative test given to those who fail the HSPA, only to see nearly 10,000 continue to fail and potentially lose their diplomas.

A scramble to try to help those students, including retesting and a new appeals process that will now be made permanent, led to all but about 2,000 ultimately getting cleared to graduate, according to state officials.

The final number of students who failed to graduate is still not determined, officials conceded.

Still, they said the experience shed light on how some school districts fell short in addressing their students’ shortcomings, often despite years of warnings that a student was struggling.

Officials said this wasn’t the case in all districts, but they said the EPP will hopefully put in place clearer expectations for all schools.

“We’re very cautious about saying these are new expectations,” said Sandra Alberti, the state department’s director of science and math education. “It is putting a structural framing around what we think should be happening and what we know is happening in many cases.”

More Paperwork

The initial reactions from school districts have been concerns that this is more paperwork and record-keeping being pushed on them, with few new resources or strategies to accomplish the necessary interventions.

Spicer acknowledged there is a learning curve to the new process, and a webinar is planned for this week that will be provided to all districts. But she also said the remediation is left to the districts themselves, and they are not being required to provide additional services, just more targeted ones.

That may include larger classes on some more general skills, but Spicer said she hopes it will also mean more individualized attention and instruction to specific needs.

There will be requirements for involving families as well, and meetings with students on a quarterly basis to keep them on track.

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