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NJ Given Chance to Move Beyond No Child Left Behind

Obama administration grants waiver for state to try its own schools plan.

Chris Cerf, acting commissioner of education.

With the Obama administration yesterday waiving New Jersey from No Child Left Behind, the state was in effect given the green light for its own plan for how public schools will be monitored, assisted, and in the case of those that don’t improve, overhauled and potentially shut down.

New Jersey was one of 10 states to receive waiver from the decade-old No Child Left Behind Act and its stress on standardized testing for students and punitive labels for schools.

The state's 392-page long application, with appendices, is heavy on details to how it will steer New Jersey’s public schools in a new direction of state oversight. Test scores will still be the main determinate in New Jersey, but will be used in different ways. And there will still be plenty of consequences for those that fall short.

Here are some of the highlights of what will change and when:

New Rules -- and Labels -- for Schools

Under No Child Left Behind, all New Jersey schools were determined to have made or not made “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) targets among every subset of children. If they did not -- and last year about half of all schools did not -- the schools faced a range of sanctions as more years passed.

Under the new system, New Jersey schools will now be divided into five categories, each with their own consequences:

  • Priority Schools: The 5 percent lowest-performing schools in overall achievement, give or take some leeway for those showing progress. In addition, high schools with lower than 75 percent graduation rates will be included. In a preliminary analysis by the state, 74 schools in all were identified as Priority Schools based on last year’s scores, a vast majority in urban and historically low-scoring school systems. Those schools will face immediate demands to make improvements, with the state working with them to determine best strategies.

  • Focus Schools: The next 10 percent of schools with the widest gaps in achievement between different subsets of students. The same analysis determined another 179 in that group, bringing in a broader array of districts, including those from suburban communities such as East Brunswick, Collingswood and Midland Park. Those schools will see more targeted attention from the state, focusing required changes around specific areas where the gaps exist, such as special education or limited-English programs.

  • At Risk Schools: Another 5 percent of schools that are on the cusp of being Focus or Priority schools, where they failed to meet progress targets for two consecutive years. The state has yet to determine which schools might fall into this category, officials said.

  • Reward Schools: The schools in the top 10 percent of achievement overall or having the narrowest achievement gaps. Those schools could receive financial rewards if eligible for federal Title I aid, or other less financial accolades from the state. By the state’s preliminary count, 133 schools would be Reward Schools based on the latest scores.

For Everyone Else?

For the majority of schools in New Jersey that do not fall in those categories, there will be less attention from the state in terms of direct and even indirect interventions.

Under No Child Left Behind, even schools that missed the AYP targets for more than two years faced some level of consequence, typically starting with a requirement to offer students the right to transfer or attend outside after-school tutoring programs. The transfers were not much used anyway, but the tutoring programs, called Supplemental Education Services, will all but disappear in New Jersey under the new rules, except where specifically ordered by the state.

Still, all schools will be held to achievement targets for each group of students, similar to the AYP targets but now different for each school and each group depending on how far they have to go. Instead of the previous target under NCLB of all students reading and doing math at grade level by 2014, schools under the new rules will be compelled to meet varying targets each year -- now called “annual measurable objectives” (AMOs) -- that reduce the number of students not proficient by at least 50 percent by 2016.

Starting next year, the state also will provide a vastly different report card for every school, renamed the School Scorecard, that will publicly report this progress. The reports will directly compare schools’ test scores against their socio-economic peers, call them out where the achievement gaps are wide or narrow, and in general provide analysis along with the numbers. The state has yet to release this year’s final version of the 17-year-old School Report Card, a little later than usual due to a new computation of graduation rates, officials said.

Different and Quicker Interventions

While the No Child Left Behind provided some flexibility for the state to move on its lowest performing school, including replacing staff or leadership, the new accountability rules will apply a specific template for addressing Priority and Focus Schools. And the state will be permitted to move quickly, not needing to wait multiple years before taking action.

The interventions and support will come out of seven new Regional Achievement Centers, which officials said are beginning to be staffed and will be ready by next fall. The eight areas where the state could step in are the following, according to the application:

  • School Climate and Culture: Requiring training or staffing to address specific concerns of violence, discipline, or other problems in school climate.

  • School Leadership: Potential dismissal of school principals and state approval of their replacements.

  • Standards Aligned Curriculum, Assessment and Intervention System: Imposition of state model curriculum, where necessary, and targeted assessments and other intervention programs for students two grade levels behind.

  • Instruction: Require all teachers and administrators consent to their placement at the school, and prohibit the assignment of any teachers who receive sub-standard evaluations.

  • Use of Time: Additional days or hours for either or both classroom instruction for students or professional development for teachers, including training in how to use that additional time.

  • Use of Data: Required staffing or training on the use of student assessment data in adjusting and changing instruction.

  • Staffing Practices: Required training for principals and administrators in evaluating and observing teachers, including the use of outside “master teachers” to assist in professional development.

  • Family and Community Engagement: Increasing academically focused family and community engagement.

The actions in each of these could vary widely, with state officials saying they will work with the districts to develop programs that met individual schools. But where the schools do not improve or take the requested actions, the state could take action on its own, including directing how funds or used, withholding certain funds or closing the schools outright.

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