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District Criticizes State Reports, Rankings

Meeting in public session last week, Tuesday, April 22, the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education responded to a recent report from the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) as well as to rankings by U.S. News & World Report in which Princeton High School went from being ranked 196th in the nation and 10th in New Jersey in 2012, to not being ranked at all this year.

The DOE issued new School Performance Reports, formerly called School Report Cards, for public schools across the state in mid-April.

The reports are intended to provide an annual “snapshot” of a school’s overall performance. Their release was delayed while the DOE addressed feedback regarding inaccuracies in the data originally presented to administrators. This year, the new reports include information on college and career readiness, student growth, and a new method for comparing schools.

Superintendent of Schools Judith A. Wilson described the report in some instances as “a mismatch for Princeton” as when, for example, the percentage of students enrolled in post-secondary institutions fails to count students who go to colleges and universities outside the United States. According to a statement from the school district, up to a dozen or more Princeton High School graduates go on to study at top-ranked universities abroad each year.

In addition, the district points out that the State reports only on Advanced Placement (AP) exams in math, science, social studies and English, whereas Princeton High School has students taking as many as eight exams over the course of two years in such areas as foreign languages, art history, and music theory, not included in the metrics.

Board President Tim Quinn went on to describe some of the measures in the State’s new school performance reports as “incomplete, confusing, and do not accurately reflect our school and community culture. In short, they don’t adequately measure many of the great things happening in our schools.”

He invited State Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf to visit Princeton and experience its culture of continuous improvement “and to learn that we are building on strength, not lagging behind.”

“A lot happens in our schools every day that doesn’t fit into this discussion about data and metrics,” said Mr. Quinn in a telephone interview Friday, April 26: “But not everything gets reported. In general, there is a lot that is not covered or factored into State measurements.”

US News & World Report

In this year’s U.S. News & World Report, Princeton High School, formerly a gold medalist, failed to rank at all in the list of best high schools for 2013.

In contrast, Montgomery High School, West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, and West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South were gold medalists, ranked in the top 2 percent in the nation according to the publication’s evaluation of almost 22,000 public high schools in 49 states plus the District of Columbia (Nebraska was excluded due to lack of data). Gold medal status was earned by 54 schools in New Jersey.

The magazine compares each state’s high school proficiency tests in reading and math. Schools are then judged on “college readiness,” according to the number of high school seniors taking and passing at least one AP exam.

Princeton Public Schools responded to the U.S. News & World Report rankings in a press release explaining that: “Rankings are subject to fluctuations from year to year, particularly as they are affected by even slight demographic and other data shifts that are common in open-enrollment public schools.”

According to the district, “If the 2013 rankings were limited to standardized test performance, Princeton would rank eighth in the state and 162nd nationwide, up from last year’s ratings.”

Over the past few years, Princeton High School has seen a steady rise in academic achievement and college readiness, based on criteria such as standardized test and AP scores. As determined by state assessment, proficiency rates rose from 96.4 percent in Language Arts in 2009-2010 to 97.8 percent two years later, in 2011-12. In mathematics there was an almost six-point increase from 90.2 percent in 2009-2010 to 96 percent last year, in 2011-12.

“The Board is always happy when our schools rank high in state and national lists and we’re disappointed when we don’t appear,” commented Mr. Quinn by email, Monday, April 29. “That said, the Board recognizes the reality of these ratings: that razor-thin margins on the scores of relatively small groups of our students on a single standardized test can mean the difference between a high ranking and not appearing on a list.”

“Several of us on the Board are the parents of Princeton High School students,” said Mr. Quinn, whose son is a sophomore there. “Every day we see PHS’s commitment to excellence reflected in the lives of our children. We know they are learning in ways that aren’t measured by the data points that go into these rankings. This doesn’t mean we are self-satisfied and that our district is resting on its laurels; it does mean that the Board is confident that every student is receiving meaningful instruction every day in all of our schools.”

Attendance Issue

In response to a High School Grading and Attendance Report from the DOE’s Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance, which came with a corrective action plan for the district, Mr. Quinn spoke of “some omissions, misleading language, and incomplete accounts” that “resulted in blaring headlines that missed the real headline: that after an exhaustive examination of records, the allegations made by an anonymous complainant could not be substantiated.”

The DOE report, released April 8, followed an anonymous tip alleging that PHS seniors were being allowed to graduate even though their absences would make them ineligible to do so.

After examining student attendance records, transcripts, and report cards for graduating classes from 2009 to 2012, the DOE concluded that it was “unable to determine that all graduates at PHS during that period met attendance requirements and found a “significant number of graduates with more than 18 absences.”

“[The] reality of Princeton Public Schools stands in contrast to some aspects of recent state reports, which could lead the casual observer to conclude that ours is a mediocre district that graduates students who don’t meet all requirements,” said Mr. Quinn in his report to the Board. “This is simply not true.”

The Board voted to implement the state’s corrective plan, however. “As Board President, I get calls and emails every day from parents and others with a stake in the education of our children, and yet I received not one call about this issue,” said Mr. Quinn. “Draw whatever conclusion you will from that fact.”

“Nonetheless, we take the findings seriously and we are always interested in improving our processes. Under Judy Wilson’s tenure there has been a culture of continuous improvement and we are always happy to implement valuable ideas.”

Superintendent Survey

“Next to classroom teachers, the most important person in our schools is the superintendent,” said Mr. Quinn, who announced at last week’s meeting that, in its search for a new superintendent of Schools to replace Ms. Wilson who steps down December 31, the Board of Education is reaching out to the community to help identify “the characteristics we will be seeking in our new superintendent.”

In addition to retaining the services of consultants Hazard, Young, and Attea for the search, the Board invites the public to take a brief survey online (before May 23) and to attend two public forums to be held in the conference room in school district’s administrative office building at 25 Valley Road, Tuesday, May 21, from 4 to 5:20 p.m. and Wednesday, May 22 from 7 to 9 p.m.

In this way the Board hopes to refine the candidate search. “In a town that values strong public education, few decisions are as important as the selection of a superintendent of schools,” said Mr. Quinn. “As a community we all benefit from having strong public schools whether we have children attending or not, property values reflect schools and, of course, a portion of local property taxes go to schools, so it’s an issue for everyone,” he said.

While ultimate responsibility for naming a new superintendent rests with the Board, Mr. Quinn said “we believe that everyone’s voice should be heard.”

A Memorandum from Mr. Quinn addressed to parents, staff and members of the Princeton Public Schools community is available on the Princeton Public School’s website which can be accessed through princetonnj.gov.

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