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Progress, Problems Outlined in State-Run N.J. District

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Three years after New Jersey took control of the Paterson public schools, the district has shown substantial progress, though serious problems remain, according to an independent audit.

The evaluation, conducted by Arthur Andersen & Company, found that standardized-test scores in the 22,000-student district remain too low and that many of its school buildings are deteriorating.

It was the first independent audit of the district since state education officials replaced Paterson's administrators and school board with their own management team and a local advisory council in 1991.

The audit, which was issued this month, comes as the state is nearing a final decision about the fate of the Newark schools, the largest district in the state.

Newark would be the third district to be taken over by the state. Commissioner of Education Leo Klagholz recently decided to retain jurisdiction for at least a sixth year over Jersey City--the first public school system in the nation to be placed under state control because of so-called academic bankruptcy.

Better Today

"By many measures, the Paterson public schools are qualitatively and quantitatively better today than they were four years ago," the report says.

Some Improvement

"Paterson's schoolchildren are benefiting from an improved learning environment," it continues. "Support services, including administration and financial management, are improved."

Despite the progress, however, the report highlights two areas of continuing concern.

One is standardarized-test scores. The auditors found that scores are not substantially higher--and have occasionally been lower--than they were before the takeover.

Only 59 percent of the district's 11th graders, for example, passed the reading portion of the high school proficiency test. As a group, the juniors fared slightly better in mathematics and writing.

The report notes wide discrepancies in test scores among the district's three high schools.

At the fine- and performing-arts magnet high school, 87.9 percent of the students passed all three parts of the test. The other two high schools registered much lower passing rates, 41.1 percent and 51.4 percent.

Attempts at Solutions

The report points out that district officials have taken numerous steps to fix the problems.

Moreover, the audit says, "with takeover in place for three years, it is too soon to make any long-term conclusions about student achievement."

The auditors' other major worry was the city's decrepit schools and the district's ability to plan for the funding and construction of new buildings.

The district estimates that it will need to raise $70 million for capital improvements during the next three to five years, a goal the report deems unrealistic at present.

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