Deciphering New Jersey’s School Performance Reports

If brevity is the soul of wit, then New Jersey’s School Performance Reports are funereal. Just two years ago the N.J. Department of Education’s annual profiles of the state’s 2,494 schools were terse two-page snapshots of test scores and graduation rates. Now our “School Performance Reports” have morphed into 15-page treatises that analyze achievement gaps, student growth percentiles, performance relative to peer groups, and proficiency trends.

If you’re a data junkie, you’ll love them. If you prefer your information in teaspoons, then not so much. But if you can bushwhack your way through the jargon, the School Performance Reports do indeed offer an opportunity to gauge your local school’s effectiveness.

Here’s how it works. Go to this link and click and search for your county, district, and school. Each Report is divided into three major sections:

Demographics:  student socio-economic diversity, special education enrollment, limited English proficiency, general enrollment.

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Academic Achievement: standardized test scores and “student growth percentiles.” The latter indicate the academic growth of a typical student from year to year compared with similar students.

College and Career-Readiness: percentage of students who score at least 1550 on the SAT’s, participation in Advanced Placement courses, graduation rates, etc.

The final page of each Report is a ranked list of about 30 schools, or a “School Peer Group.” These intend to allow you to compare your school with other schools that share similar demographic characteristics.Let’s go to the data.

Cherry Hill High School East is part of the Cherry Hill Public Schools District in Camden County, which is the 12th largest school district in the state (about 12,000 kids). It’s also one of the most successful in terms of academic achievement. Accordingly, Cherry Hill High School East has scores to die for. The School Performance Reports begin with a prescribed narrative, which in this case is peppered with superlatives like “academic performance is very high,” “college and career-readiness is very high,” “post-secondary performance is very high.”

How high? N.J.’s standardized tests (due for replacement soon with national tests called PARCC) assign students a range of “Advanced Proficient,” “Proficient,” and “Partially-Proficient.” (The latter is a euphemism for “failing.”). Typical schools have small percentages of students who qualify for “Advanced Proficiency” status. But at Cherry Hill East, a whopping 44 percent of high school students are deemed Advanced Proficient in language arts, 54 percent are Advanced Proficient in math, and 48 percent are Advanced Proficient in biology.

Keep drooling. Seventy-four percent of students score above 1550 on the SAT’s, a benchmark college and career-readiness. (This is why everyone made such a fuss when only three students in Camden City scored 1550.) The composite SAT score is a whopping 1,734. Eighty-one percent of students go on to 4-year colleges

Among its “peer group, that final page of the Report that clusters schools with similar demographics, Cherry Hill East scores just below  Moorestown High School  (Burlington County) and a few notches above West Windsor/Plainsboro (Mercer County).

For another example, let’s move eight miles northwest to Colllingwood High School, also in Camden County. While the School Performance Report narrative describes academic performance and college and career-readiness as “about average” statewide, the school is distinguished by a “very high” rating within its Peer Group.

On the other hand, Collingswood High School’s graduation rate “significantly lags” in comparison to schools. So does academic achievement as measured by standardized tests, although the scores are certainly respectable. In language arts, 26 percent of students reach Advanced Proficiency and 71 percent are Proficient. Math scores are slightly worse; 13 percent of students fail. Forty-one percent receive scores above 1550 on the SAT’s and the composite score is 1,485.

Here’s another difference: at Cherry Hill East, ten minutes away, only 9 percent of kids are labeled as economically-disadvantaged. At Collingswood High, 42 percent of students receive that designation. This juxtaposition neatly illustrates N.J.’s system of segregated zip code education.

The Reports have received mixed reviews. Some school boards and administrators are unhappy because there are errors in the data. For example, a few Atlantic County districts reported that the DOE miscounted the number of kids enrolled in algebra, a factor in the calculation for college and career-readiness. Other districts question the reliability of the “peer groups.” Many question the usefulness of annual reports based on assessments one long year ago. (Students take state standardized tests in March; these Reports, then, harken back to last Spring’s tests.)

So here’s a suggestion: the DOE has no shortage of bandwidth . Perhaps it might consider issuing two versions of its annual School Performance Reports: one, as written, for the hard-core data junkies out there, and another “retro” version for those who yearn for those grand old days of simple school assessments.


Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind.


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