Test Says Three-Quarters of New Jersey School Districts Are Top Performers

Stellar results on the state’s Quality Single Accountability Continuum raise concerns over what’s being evaluated: compliance or education

As New Jersey rethinks how it monitors public schools, three quarters of the 200-plus districts it evaluated last year came in with stellar marks, winning the state’s tag as a “high-performing district.”

Brigantine in Atlantic City won a perfect score. Allendale in Bergen County was pretty close.

Yet one notable exception was Millburn, the Essex County district that enjoys the reputation as one of New Jersey’s suburban superstars.

In the state’s review, Millburn didn’t do so well in meeting the state’s requirements, posting scores that might be expected of districts deep under the state’s watch. Under personnel, for instance, it met less than half of the state’s demands. The district is appealing some of the findings, while seeking to address the others, a spokeswoman said.

A Work in Progress

The monitoring system – called the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) – is itself a work in progress, finishing its third year and its first full cycle through every district in the state.

The process is a veritable checklist of compliance requirements, with districts earning scores in five key areas: governance, instruction, operations, finance, and personnel. Districts that post 80 percent or higher on all five win the highest marks. Those at 50 percent or less win the state’s close attention.

The questions span everything from student achievement and budgetary compliance to personnel policies and ethics procedures. Districts start the process through self-evaluation, with the state then verifying the responses.

And after a first year where some of the state’s most troubled districts fared poorly, the third year proved a banner year for dozens of districts. Overall, 73 percent of the districts–157 out of 215–posted 80 percent or better in all five areas.

Learning to Comply

“I have no question at all that they have learned what they have to do to pass QSAC,” said Willa Spicer, assistant education commissioner. “Three quarters of it is compliance, and what it’s done is brought people into compliance.”

When asked if three quarters of districts are indeed high performing, she said: “Three quarters of our schools are in compliance.”

Education Commissioner Bret Schundler has been critical of the QSAC process as being overly burdensome for districts, and he said so again yesterday in evaluating the latest results.

“Whatever we are measuring, it is being performed,” he said.

But he said he would weigh going into longer cycles for high-performing districts, maybe extending it back for some districts to the previously mandated seven years.

“I think we are looking to go to longer cycle for schools that are very high performing,” he said. “I think the systems are always important, and when we already know a district well and they know what to do well, it may not take as long to monitor. But I don’t think you go away from this, but maybe a longer cycle.”

A Stellar Performance

As for Millburn, spokeswoman Nancy Dries said the district is still in the process of addressing the low QSAC scores for a district that otherwise is on nearly every Top 10 list in the state.

Better than 95 percent of its students pass the state’s high school exit exam, a third of them with advanced standing. Its SAT scores are also among the best in the state.

Yet, the state’s review found the district lacking in some of its policies around teacher evaluations. Even some of the scores for instruction and program were low, in part due to what was apparently missing information in the district’s self-evaluation.

Dries said the district has been in transition, with a new superintendent coming on board this month, and steps are being taken to address the compliance concerns.

“But there may have been some things that fell through the cracks over the years,” she said.