30 Percent of State Public Schools on Federal ‘Needs Improvement List’

John Mooney | November 5, 2010 | Education
As state and federal standards change, more New Jersey schools fall afoul of No Child Left Behind

The growing number of New Jersey schools falling short of achievement targets set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act may be as much about changing state and federal standards as it is about the schools.

The state this week released the latest list of schools falling short of the federal government’s target achievement levels for “adequate yearly progress.” An additional 209 schools have missed the targets and landed on the ”needs improvement” list. That brings the total to 657 schools, or close to a third of all public schools in the state.

But state officials also conceded that the measures used under the controversial federal law have also been changing, which has a big impact on the overall numbers. For instance, there was a new third- and fourth-grade test that aimed to ramp up the rigor of the exams.

“Any time you put in an assessment that increases the rigor, you will see an impact,” said Barbara Gantwerk, assistant commissioner of education.

Longer Odds

Gantwerk said schools faced longer odds for meeting the progress requirements, or so-called safe harbor, with a change in the formula used to determine whether a school had made enough gains.

“Every year with AYP [Adequate Yearly Progress], something changes and there are fluctuations throughout,” Gantwerk said.

She indicated that the overall proportion of schools failing to meet the standards has only risen slightly since 2006, from about 25 percent to this year’s 30 percent.

Still, that may soon change as those requirements are only going to fluctuate more, when the target levels take a big jump toward the law’s mandate that all students reach proficiency in math and reading by 2014.

For instance, under New Jersey’s requirements, elementary schools in this year’s tests will need to show 79 percent of their students pass the language arts test and 83 percent pass math.

Yet those minimum levels exceed last year’s overall statewide averages for most of the grades. “And then we only have two more years before schools will have to hit 100 percent,” Gantwerk said.

Such has been the quandary of the federal law since its was enacted in 2001, sending shivers through public schools by matching specific sanctions to schools that fail to meet its achievement targets. And it’s not just overall students. Schools are also required to show those achievement gains for all subgroups of students, including by race, income and special needs.

Special Education

The state’s early analysis of the latest data did find some intriguing results.

For example, state officials said that only about one in six of the schools labeled “in need of improvement” were on the lists due to solely their special education students.

That counters a perception and prime source of tension in many communities that special needs students are the main drag on local test scores and the cause for a school being sanctioned.

In addition, nearly 120 schools in the state have fallen short on the requirements for at least six years and face orders to restructure, including replacing staff and leadership or revamping curriculum. That’s double the number from five years ago.