Educators for years have complained that test scores alone don’t give an adequate picture of a school.
On Tuesday, New Jersey became what is believed to be the first state in the nation to include visual and performing arts among the items it tracks in annual state school report cards. The data is included in 2013 high school performance reports posted online by the Department of Education.
The addition was praised by arts advocates and educators for raising the profile of the arts in school and showing their value in education. But some said the state could do even more to make school performance reports more inclusive and comprehensive.
Statewide, about 47 percent of high school students, or almost 200,000 students statewide, took at least one class in an arts area in 2012-13, with music and the visual arts the two most popular classes. The state requires that all students take at least one class in the arts before graduation, which would mean that to meet the minimum, on average about 25 percent of students would be taking an arts class each year.
The fact that almost double that number took at least one class shows there is a lot of student interest in the arts, said Bob Morrison, chairman of the New Jersey Arts Education Partnership, which has done an arts census in New Jersey schools and recommended schoolwide data be included in the report cards.
“This is a pretty strong statement,” Morrison said. “It sends the message that school performance is more than just testing. There are other things we value in education, and schools should have some accountability for them.”
Morrison said including the arts will allow parents and residents to monitor a school’s commitment to the arts each year. The arts partnership has been concerned that tight school budgets have eaten into arts programs.
“We have seen a narrowing of offerings statewide,” he said. “But schools are going above and beyond to try to keep arts programs.”
Locally, Lower Cape May Regional and Bridgeton high schools had the highest student participation at almost 55 percent. LCMR Superintendent Chris Kobik, a 1978 graduate of the high school and former music teacher, said he is proud that the school board has preserved the arts programs because so many students are attracted to them.
“They do offer a way to keep many students connected to school,” he said. “And they teach important critical skills like creativity, perseverance and working together. Music was what kept me connected to high school.”
He said the school offers a variety of programs, from dance to electronic music composition.
“We cast a wide net,” he said. “We want to give young people the opportunity to find their voice.”
Tom Weber, supervisor of fine and performing arts in the Egg Harbor Township School District, said it has been a challenge to maintain programs in recent years, but none have been cut. Almost 46 percent of students took an arts class at the high school in 2012-13.
Weber said it helps that the district is large, so they can offer more variety, but there have been some staff reductions.
“Where we used to have a teacher at just one school, they may now be traveling to more than one school,” he said. “But we do have community and board support for the arts.”
Both Kobik and Weber said student interest helps maintain the programs. If enrollment were to drop, programs would be cut.
The performance reports, which were revised last year, also include other data in three primary areas: academic achievement, college and career readiness, and graduation and post-secondary plans. Complete details on those areas were not available Tuesday.
Academic achievement is primarily results on state tests. College and career readiness includes student attendance, the percentage of eighth-graders taking algebra, and the percentage of students who take the PSAT, SAT, ACT or Advanced Placement courses and tests. Graduation and post-secondary includes the high school graduation rate and how many students plan to attend college.
Some educators have criticized the college and career readiness category for being solely focused on college. All local high schools scored poorly in that category, which includes benchmarks of at least 80 percent of students taking the SAT or ACT, 60 percent taking the PSAT, having at least 40 percent of participating students scoring above 1550 on the SAT, having at least 35 percent of students taking an Advanced Placement test, and at least 75 percent of them scoring at least a 3 out of 5 on the AP test.
Mainland Regional, Cape May County Technical, Hammonton and Southern Regional High Schools met two of the five benchmarks. The Atlantic County Institute of Technology, Egg Harbor Township, Absegami, Ocean City and Pinelands Regional high schools met one. All other high schools in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties met none.
Philip Guenther, superintendent of the Atlantic County Institute of Technology, said they have raised the issue with the state that not every student plans to go to college, and vocational training programs are not included at all in the reports. The old state report cards used to include students who received industry certificates, but the new performance reports do not.
Guenther said the state could use a format similar to the new arts listing to show how many students are taking vocational or career courses.
“We have 1,200 students preparing for careers, and that is not shown anywhere in the data,” he said. “If we had some measure for career tech classes, I’d be at 100 percent.”
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