New Jersey Monthly’s high school survey isn’t the whole story

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

Last week New Jersey Monthly published its biennial ranking of the state’s 328 public high schools, a closely-followed contest among N.J. districts. The top-ranked school in N.J. is New Providence High School in Union County, which boasts combined SAT scores of 1737 and a 97.7% graduation rate. The lowest-ranked traditional high school is Thomas Jefferson Arts Academy in Elizabeth, which admits to combined SAT scores of 1136 and a 53% graduation rate.

Rankings were compiled by an independent research firm in Ringwood called Leflein Associates, which used a combination of factors in its calculations, including average class size; SAT, A.P. and state assessment scores (HSPA); graduation rates; and socio-economic ranking (DFG).

Districts and families pay close attention to these rankings, celebrating elevation and ruing demotions. Amidst this reflection, here’s two items that jump out at me.

First, an important factor in determining rankings is class size. Many districts in the state face dramatically lower state aid, declining property values, a hard 2% cap on budget increases, and daunting costs in special education. (Senator Teresa Ruiz, the architect of the new tenure reform bill, says that studying N.J.’s whopping special ed bill is her new priority.) One way to cut costs is to increase class size.

Sometimes this is done poorly, to the detriment of student achievement. Sometimes it’s done well, with adequate professional development and careful oversight. Class size is not a zero sum game. Raising the number of students per classroom doesn’t automatically lead to poorer outcomes, particularly with excellent educators at the helm. For example, in 2008 and 2010, NJ’s number one high school was Millburn High. However, in the 2012 rankings it dropped to 8th, solely because class size grew to 21.3 students per class. In fact’s Millburn’s student achievement, when comparing SAT and HSPA scores, was higher than our new #1 school, Providence High School, which reported 17.7 students per class.

Does this mean that Millburn High School is lower-performing than Providence? No, it could simply mean that budget constraints have pushed it to operate more efficiently.

There may also be a few flaws in New Jersey Monthly’s calculations, perhaps because data came from the NJ Department of Education (DOE). For example, Jefferson Township High School dropped from a 2010 rank of 158 to a 2012 rank of 211. The only factor in this drop appears to be an inaccuracy in reporting class size, which is listed, impossibly, at 49.1 students.

Secondly, for the first time New Jersey Monthly ranked N.J.’s robust system of magnet schools, a great form of school choice in which parents have the rare right to cross district boundaries and enroll children at a county-run “vocational school.” Don’t think cosmetology or auto mechanics. In fact, many of these schools, particularly in the north part of the state, are exclusive academically-oriented academies, with rigorous admissions standards and funding that traditional districts see only in their dreams.

The top vocational school is High Technology High in Monmouth County, with combined SAT scores of 2116 and a 100% graduation rate, besting N.J.’s #1 traditional high school, New Providence. Here’s New Jersey Monthly’s write-up:

“The test results for High Technology High’s students are mind-blowing. The average combined SAT score of 2,116 is the best of any public high school in the state, and its HSPA results are equally monumental.

To attend High Technology High, each student must pass a rigorous admission test. It’s worth the effort; 10 members of the latest graduating class of about 70 students are bound for Princeton University this fall.”

Here’s what’s mind-blowing: the total cost per pupil at High Technology High is $39,024, according to NJ DOE. The total cost allotted per pupil the same year at a typical Monmouth County high school, Middletown High School North, was $15,193. Tuition is paid by the home district, which also provides transportation.

N.J. residents tend to support this form of school choice, even though it defies home rule (magnet/vocational students can bypass district boundaries, as long as they live in the county), “creams” top students from traditional schools (one of the most inflammatory charges against charter schools), and takes money from local district coffers.

Perhaps it’s just semantics. Have school choice opponents successfully marred the word “charter,” which simply means schools that receive public money and are free from some of state regulations (like only employing unionized teachers) in exchange for accountability? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? Maybe we should rename charter schools and call them magnet schools.

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Correction 9/6/12: Judy Savage, Executive Director of the NJ Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, contacted me regarding my statement that per pupil expenditure of Monmouth County’s High Technology High School is $39,024. The correct cost per pupil is $21,927, which represents the aggregate cost of a variety of programs offered there. The higher figure refers to the Hudson County Schools of Technology School District. I apologize for the error.

In addition, Ms. Savage notes that local school tax levies don’t cover the full cost of tuition to vo-techs. County Freeholders decide on percentages, although county and state taxes, of course, make up the difference. She adds, “county vocational-technical schools are countywide school districts that do not ‘defy home rule’ at all; rather they support local school districts by offering specialized programs.” Hey: I meant that as a compliment. I’m a huge fan of county-wide schools, especially for students trapped in low-achieving districts.

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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. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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