New school performance reports were released Wednesday by the state Department of Education, and local school officials are asking parents to proceed with caution as they read them.
The new reports include the usual information on state test results and high school graduation and dropout rates. But the first page provides what Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said is what most parents want to know: how their school achievement compares with other “peer” schools, and whether the school is doing a good job preparing students for college and careers.
“All the action is on the front page,” Cerf said in a media webinar on the new reports Tuesday.
But is Ocean City High School really comparable to Millburn or Chatham? Should Oakcrest, Vineland, Buena Regional and Charter Tech in Somers Point really be in the same peer group?
Local school officials had somewhat mixed reactions to the new reports. Some said they were good for comparisons, while others said they were confusing and sometimes misleading.
Both state and local officials said there are likely mistakes on this first report, but they would work to fix them for next year. State officials acknowledged the challenge of the NJSMART data system to collect and track about 11 million records on the state’s 1.4 million students attending 2,527 schools.
For middle schools, the big issue is whether or not they teach algebra, which the state used as a primary criteria for determining college and career readiness.
Officials in Somers Point, Upper Township and Wildwood Crest said their algebra participation was not counted, which lowered their ranking for college and career readiness.
Somers Point curriculum supervisor Jennifer Luff said the algebra omission was the district’s mistake, but that the state also left out 100 Jordan Road School students when calculating their student performance growth, which affected the outcome.
“I asked how the report could go out with such a big error, but they said they hope to fix it for next year,” Luff said. “With all the scrutiny teachers are under now with evaluations, the data should be right.”
Upper Township Superintendent Vincent Palmieri said district officials are pleased overall with the results, but the report does not acknowledge any seventh- and eighth-grade algebra students. That contributed to the zero the middle school got for meeting college and career readiness goals. Crest Memorial School Principal Ann-Maria Guevara said the school offered algebra through Wildwood High School, so Crest Memorial’s students also were not counted.
Vocational school officials said the college and career readiness criteria are focused exclusively on college, including SAT and Advanced Placement course participation, but not career certificates.
“None of the indicators address what vocational-technical schools typically consider career readiness,” Cape May County Technical High School Superintendent Nancy Hudanich wrote in an email.
“It totally leaves out students completing career programs,” Atlantic County Institute of Technology Superintendent Philip Guenther said. “We offer certificates students can take with them to get jobs.”
Both Hudanich and Guenther said they are pleased the state is comparing them solely to other vocational schools as their peer group.
Part-time vocational programs, such as those in Cumberland County, have no full-time students, so they are not included in the rankings.
The peer-group rankings are perhaps the most interesting and controversial part of the new report card. In prior years, the peer groupings were based solely on socioeconomic factors identified by the letters A through J. The poorest districts were the A group, the wealthiest districts the I and J groups, and all others were somewhere in between.
The new groupings also include the number of students in the free and reduced-price lunch program, the number of non-native English speakers and the number of students with disabilities receiving special education services. The state has a 13-page explanation for how the peer groups were developed.
Vineland Superintendent Mary Gruccio said that under the old criteria, the district’s schools always performed comparatively above average. Under the new peer groupings, they are in the bottom third, and they question how similar their high school is to Oakcrest or Charter Tech, which are among the peer schools listed. Statewide, Vineland High School ranks in the bottom 20 percent, although it did meet performance targets for improvement.
“It’s disheartening,” Gruccio said of the low high school rankings. “And it’s confusing to explain how we can be so low and still meet targets.”
Cerf said the targets allow parents to see whether a school is improving, and that districts should discuss the reports at public school board meetings.
“Is the school on the move or stagnant?” Cerf said parents should ask. “That is really meaningful.”
Ocean City High School scores in the middle statewide in academic achievement and college and career readiness, but ranks near the bottom when compared to its new peer schools, which include some of the wealthiest in the state. Superintendent Kathleen Taylor takes it as a challenge.
“It is ... good reflective practice to be compared to the wealthy districts in North Jersey, which provides us with data to incorporate into our ongoing school improvement plans,” she wrote in an email.
Thomas Baruffi, superintendent for the Linwood and Mainland Regional school districts, said his peer group schools are also in wealthier districts, and parents need to understand that the target goals are very high.
“While our score for language arts (at the elementary level) was 85.2 percent passing, which is pretty good, it will still reflect as not meeting our target (of 90 percent), which many may interpret as insufficient performance,” Baruffi said.
Northfield Superintendent Janice Fipp said that while the reports are necessary, they are still just a snapshot of a school.
“We must also remember that no standardized test score, which is a one-day picture of what a student achieves, should be used to make major statements,” she said. “However, it is clear that these one-day pictures are being used to label our schools. Our schools are so much more.”
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