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Principals Seek To Identify Measures of School Quality

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Princeton, N.J.

Rare is the school administrator who can't find plenty to criticize in the way the news media cover education.

In New Jersey, a perennial target of such complaints is the ranking of the state's best public high schools published each September by New Jersey Monthly magazine.

"One guy called me and said, 'You're the worst thing that ever happened to public education in this state,'" Jenny DeMonte, the magazine's editor, said in a recent interview.

Well aware of the angst, anger, and envy that the ratings spawn, Ms. DeMonte accepted an invitation several months ago from Mary Lee Fitzgerald, a former state education commissioner, to explore how the rankings could be made more palatable to educators.

As the director of the nonprofit Principals Center for the Garden State in Princeton, which provides continuing education for principals, Ms. Fitzgerald thought it was time for administrators to stop complaining about how others judged schools and start offering alternatives.

Grading the Schools

As a result of her overture, about 60 principals from across the state gathered here this month to tackle this question: What are the characteristics of a high-performing high school and how can those characteristics be measured for the public?

The May 11 conference on the sprawling grounds of the Educational Testing Service was a joint effort by the testing company, the magazine, the Principals Center, and the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

"It's tremendously important that some of you people start playing offense," Ms. Fitzgerald told the administrators. "The talent is in this room."

As participants clustered in groups to discuss good schools, they often found it easier to list the tenets of school quality than to zero in on ways to measure whether those elements produce the desired results.

When they did focus on measurements, they sometimes resorted to the same kinds of statistics that educators often consider so misleading.

So at the end of the day, as the participants reconvened to whittle down the small groups' reports, it was not surprising that a blend of statistics and less tangible characteristics emerged.

The measures of school quality that the principals deemed most important, in the order that they ranked them, were:

  • A mission statement that reflects priorities agreed upon by "all stakeholders" in the school.
  • The percentage of a school's budget spent on professional development of staff members.
  • School climate, as reflected in student and faculty attendance, the percentage of students participating in co-curricular activities, and the graduation rate.
  • Scholastic Assessment Test scores, reported as an average of the top half of students who are accepted to four-year colleges, using the best scores earned by those students--who often take the test more than once.
  • A school's track record over at least four years on such benchmarks as standardized-test scores.
  • Whether the curriculum emphasizes literacy, comprehensive course offerings, and critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Whether the curriculum is reviewed often and "meets the needs of a variety of populations."

Follow-up in Fall

The criteria that New Jersey Monthly uses for its list of top high schools has evolved over time. Typically, average SAT scores have counted for a lot, as have scores on state standardized tests.

Ms. DeMonte said the fall ranking for this year was too far along to incorporate any of the administrators' suggestions, but said she would consider doing so in future years.

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