New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf told attendees at the New Jersey School Boards Conference in Atlantic City Tuesday that New Jersey may have one of the top-performing public education systems in the nation, but there are still too many disadvantaged and minority students who continue to underperform.

"Our job is not done until significantly more children graduate from high school ready to be launched into adulthood," Cerf told school board members and school administrators at the Atlantic City Convention Center.

Cerf rattled off numbers on a presentation showing that while New Jersey has an 86 percent high school graduation rate, and is in the top five states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, there are still huge achievement gaps between white and minority and low-income students.

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"Imagine if that situation were reversed and the white students were on the bottom," he said. "Would anyone tolerate that?"

He defended himself against critics who oppose new state tests and claim he is trying to privatize education by promoting charter schools. He said only 3 percent of all schools in the state are charters, and they educate only 2 percent of students, most in urban districts.

"We have opened 24 new charter schools, but we also closed 10," he said. "I am not interested in privatizing education."

He said he is not concerned so much with state testing as he is with what test results mean.

"I care about what (test results) tell me about the life trajectory of the students who take them," he said. "Will they get a job? Will they wind up in the criminal justice system? The numbers tell a very distressing story."

He said a high rate of students do pass the state high school graduation test, but the test is only really measuring ninth-grade skills. He showed a slide of the high rate of remedial courses taken by students at New Jersey community colleges to stress the impact of graduating high school students unprepared for the future.

He said the most important step the state has taken is adopting the Common Core Standards in 2010, which set a high bar for all students. School districts have been adapting curriculum to meet those standards. New state tests will begin in the 2014-15 school year. Students will be tested in language arts and math in grades 3 through 8, and high school students will take end-of-course exams in algebra I and II and geometry, plus English in grades 9, 10 and 11.

Students currently in grades 7 through 11 who will take the new tests in high school will not have to pass them as a graduation requirement during the trial period.

Cerf promised that regulations are being rewritten to require less bureaucracy and encourage more innovation in high-performing districts. But, he said, the state will continue to intervene in schools where student performance is below standards.

He encouraged school board members to become familiar with the Common Core standards, and said the most important obligation of any school board is to hire the right superintendent to implement them. He said the board must set high expectations for that leader, and must be committed to protecting and defending them in the face of change.

"We are at a pivot point in public education, and you are the vanguard in a world that is often loud and sometimes mean," Cerf said.

The school boards conference continues in Atlantic City through Thursday.

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241

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