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New Jersey District's Choice Plan Called 'Promising' in E.T.S. Study

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The unusual districtwide choice plan in Montclair, N.J., has successfully desegregated schools and apparently helped boost student achievement, according to a policy paper by the Educational Testing Service.

Drawing on an evaluation of the Montclair model and other research, the report concludes that school-choice plans based on magnet schools ''appear most promising in meeting the educational goals of achieving racial balance, providing quality education, and offering diverse educational programs."

The 5,000-student Montclair district is one of only a few nationwide that have eliminated school-attendance zones and require all parents to choose their children's schools.

The authors of the paper acknowledge that the district's modest size and relatively wealthy population contributed to the acceptance of the plan by the community and its subsequent success. But they add that other factors influencing the plan's success, such as strong leadership and careful planning and monitoring, can be replicated in other districts.

The report is based on the findings of an 1987 e.t.s. assessment funded by the district. The analysis was updated last summer for public release to help address the lack of "rigorous evaluations" of existing choice plans, according to officials of the testing service.

Plan Brings 'Stability'

Montclair first adopted a magnet plan in 1976, when the district was threatened with the loss of state aid for failing to racially balance its schools.

It was broadened to include all of the district's six elementary and two middle schools in 1985, after "white flight" and other demographic shifts had begun to undermine the stability of the original plan. By that time, too, the report says, "some parents had become concerned about the inequity of resources between magnet schools and the neighborhood schools."

By the 1988-89 school year, when 48 percent of the district's students were members of minorities, minority enrollments at each of the schools had stabilized at between 46 and 52 percent, the study found.

Average scores for both minority and white students on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills have improved since the implementation of the magnet plan, although a significant gap between the two groups remains, the report notes.

"Although many factors may have contributed to the improvement in test scores," it says, "the data show that implementation of the magnet schools has not caused a decline in reading and math levels, and may have been a factor contributing to improved performance."

"Certainly," it continues, "the stability brought about by the magnet system after a period of turmoil in the schools is believed to have been a factor contributing to better performance."

Copies of "Choice in Montclair, N.J." can be ordered for $5 each by writing Policy Information Center, 04-R, e.t.s., Rosedale Road, Princeton, N.J. 08541.--ws

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