Capturing the award for excellence is a moment of great pride and a potent marketing tool, vivid blue proof that a school’s students did very well on standardized tests and their programs impressed judges. Bergen and Passaic counties had seven winners, and some immediately sent out news releases to let their neighbors know.
Nationwide, 219 public schools and 50 private schools got the award this year. It’s a huge coup to get one, but there’s a common misconception that schools with Blue Ribbons rack up the very best results in America. One winner even boasted on its website that its Blue Ribbon places it “among the 50 top-performing private elementary schools in the nation.”
But the award does not make quite such a bold statement.
Many schools aren’t even in the running. Among private schools, only a fraction of those with good enough test scores to apply actually do so. Thousands of eligible schools don’t bother. It’s voluntary, much like Math Olympiads and robotics competitions, or individual challenges like the Intel Science Talent Search.
Among public schools, complex rules determine the ones that can participate, and the New Jersey education commissioner can nominate only nine. A third of the public-system nominees must spotlight schools where at least 40 percent of the children are disadvantaged.
Public schools with many poor children tend to be in the category for schools that are “improving.” For the “high performing”
category, the most affluent districts have an edge; their students tend to have the best test scores thanks in part to parents who are themselves well educated and can afford many books, tutoring, enrichment activities and other resources. Indeed, all three public elementary winners are in Bergen County districts of high socioeconomic status.
Furthermore, many worthy candidates are excluded because New Jersey won’t nominate two schools from the same district in the same year.
The U.S. Department of Education, which runs the Blue Ribbon program, says it aims to spotlight “exemplary” schools, not rank them.
All New Jersey’s eight private school winners were Catholic schools. They’re part of a nationwide push: According to the Council for American Private Education, 114 of the 135 private schools that vied across the country this year were Catholic schools. Independent schools and schools of other faiths tend not to participate. Of the 50 winners in the private category nationwide, 44 were Catholic schools.
To be eligible, private schools must score in the top 15 percent nationwide in each grade level on standardized tests they choose to use — whether national tests — like the TerraNova — or state assessments or both. Russ Dusewicz, a test consultant at CTB/McGraw-Hill, which sells many of these tests, estimated thousands of private schools had high enough scores to apply for Blue Ribbons.
In North Jersey, Academy of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Tenafly, Visitation Academy Interparochial in Paramus and St. Philip the Apostle School in Clifton got Blue Ribbons this year.
At Mount Carmel on a recent day, Principal Sylvia Cosentino beamed with pride as she led a tour of her spic-and-span classrooms. A group of polite sixth-graders stood to say hello in unison and then sat down to focus quietly on work sheets about a short story, “Eleven,” by Sandra Cisneros.
“Answer the questions thoroughly,” advised their teacher, Mary Paone. “I want to know the reasons. Give me evidence.” [more]
The Bergen Record