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New System Slows Reporting of Graduation Rates

School Report Cards delayed as state gears up NJ SMART.

Just a few months short of the Class of 2012's high school graduation, the state Department of Education is still tallying the numbers for the Class of 2011.

Counting graduates was slowed as the department puts in place a new system for more accurately totaling up the number of students who make it through high school and how they do so, officials said.

The delay has also postponed the release of the state's annual School Report Cards. Typically released in February, the Report Cards provide data and analysis for every school on their test scores, class sizes and a host of other measures.

But the statewide and district graduation rates are a particular hot-button issue since the Christie administration has said it will be a central measure of a high school's performance and used in decisions about state interventions in the lowest-performing ones.

Under the old system, New Jersey has the highest graduation rate in the country at about 87 percent, the exact rate depending on the measure.

Officials said they expected to have the new graduation results finished in the next month, but they said it has been a complicated and labor-intensive process involving the input of data student by student, some of it going back four years.

Ordered by the federal government, New Jersey's data system -- dubbed NJ SMART -- follows individual students on a statewide basis, tracking where they come and go during the course of their four years in high school. Officials said once tabulated, it will likely bring down New Jersey's best-in-the-nation rates from previous district-reported ones.

"It's a seismic shift in just not how we are formulating this, but at a student level," said Bari Erlichson, the assistant education commissioner who is overseeing the work.

Training for district officials was held across the state, but Erlichson said the first round of data still led to more than 7,000 requests for corrections from districts. "We spent a great deal of time working through this student by student," Erlichson said.

Much of the work on NJ SMART is being done through a contract with Public Consulting Group, Inc., a Boston-based information management firm. The company was paid $6.3 million by the department last year, according to state records.

Districts concurred the input of graduation data has been time consuming, if not at times vexing, in working out what they said were kinks in the state's system as well.

In Piscataway, the district was "experiencing multiple problems with delays in uploading information, 'errors' that were not really errors in our data, files that were deleted, etc.," said Teresa Rafferty, public information officer for the Piscataway schools.

While many issues seemed resolved, Rafferty shared an email from the department from December that said data previously deemed final was still being reviewed.

Elizabeth school officials said their not-yet-final results showed an increase in the graduation rates, good news for the district with a system that many said would likely deflate graduate rates across the state.

"We're actually seeing a bump to 83 percent, up from 75 percent the year before," said Donald Goncalves, the district's communication director. "I don't know if it something we are doing better or the change in their methodology."

Still, he said, it has been a heavy lift for districts that are facing a flood of requests for different data.

"There are so many different overlapping systems, and data coming in from so many different places," Goncalves said. "It has been very time consuming trying to sift through it all."

State officials said they were pleased with the process so far, and said the value of the data would be immeasurable in helping districts improve upon everything from curriculum to individual services for students.

Erlichson, the assistant commissioner, said the data will come quicker in the years ahead. "There is a timeliness factor to this, and the idea is as districts get better at this, the faster it will go," she said.

"We are really proud of the process so far," she said, "but no question, this is a very complex system."

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