State releases school report cards

School districts are compared with their ‘peers’; report should not be seen as ranking

UNION COUNTY — It looks like the state department of education took a long look at the school report card format after local educators offered input on making this annual update easier to understand.

According to Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, the latest report cards released last week are part of the department’s effort to ensure students have the skills they need to move forward in the next phase of their life, and data is an important part that process.

But they are aware the report cards can be confusing and contradictory. Nevertheless, Cerf felt the report cards played an important role.

“We are providing information to enable managers, teachers, principles and superintendents to figure out what’s working,” said Cerf in a release last week.

While the report cards did undergo changes, the format introduced last year is still being used.
Assistant Education Commissioner Bari Erlichson went into greater detail about problems the report cards present, pointing out that far too often educators and stakeholders experience “fear, confusion and skepticism” when this data is released.

“To some extent our healthy and appropriate adherence to the belief that no one metric can describe a school’s performance is a root cause of this confusion,” she explained, noting that sometimes multiple metrics present contradictory conclusions.

“In short, making meaning of school performance data is not simple, straight forward or easy,” Erlichson explained, warning schools not to fall into the trap some viewers do of using the data to rank schools, “akin to the Best New Jersey Schools,” list.

“As educators know well, measuring school performance is both an art and a science,” she added, noting that there are many other factors not taken into consideration when ranking school performance.

“Each school that receives a performance report with valid student outcome data will be grouped with approximately 30 other similar schools into a peer school comparison group,” the report explained. “And then they are grouped into a larger statewide grouping.”

In an effort to provide a snapshot of this data, LocalSource will be looking at three schools this week, with the remaining schools targeted in the next several weeks. However, because of the extensive amount of information, we will only be looking at how high schools fared in the latest state school performance report cards.

It is important to note that while school districts provide certain data to the state, other information is obtained by the state from College Board testing, ACT and the National School Clearinghouse, which is the only post secondary enrollment data available nationwide.

Union High School
Although all other high schools in Union County provided a narrative to the state explaining what academic offerings they provide for students as well as achievements that have been accomplished, Union High School failed to submit such a narrative.
This high school, with an enrollment of 2,294, showed through testing it lagged in comparison to schools across the state, according to the state report card.

In addition, this high school also lagged academically in comparison to its peer schools. Peer schools, according to information supplied by the state department of education, are other schools in the state with similar grade configurations which are educating students with similar demographic characteristics. It is, they explained, the best statistical way to construct comparison groups so the ranking is fair.

When measured against schools in its peer group, such as Hillside, Linden, Roselle Park, Plainfield and Bloomfield, Union High, however, came out “about average” in college and career readiness, scoring in the 53 percentile range compared with the statewide average of 33.

College and career readiness measures the degree students are demonstrating behaviors that indicate future success in college or careers. In high school, this includes amount of participation in college readiness tests such as the SAT along with rigorous coursework in areas of English, math, social studies and science.

Approximately 71 percent of students participated in the SAT’s, while only 60 percent of their peer group students took this test. The statewide target for this peer group was 80 percent; however, SAT participation showed an upward trend from the 2008-09 school year when just 60 percent of students participated.

Only 18 percent of students at Union High School scored above 1550 on the SAT testing while the peer average was 23 percent and the state average was considerably higher at 43 percent.
The graduation rate at Union High School came in at 90.1 percent of students achieving this goal, compared to 87 percent in their peer grouping while the statewide target had a 75 percent rate. Interestingly, while the Union High Class of 2011 had an 84 percent graduation rate, that number jumped to 91 percent in 2012 and stayed the course in 2013.

College enrollment rates came in at 42 percent of students still enrolled after 16 months, as per the National Student Clearinghouse which collects data from 95 percent of institutions of higher learning.

When it came to graduation rates, Union High school outperformed 50 percent of schools in its statewide peer group.
“This school’s graduation and post-secondary performance is about average when compared to schools across the state,” the report said. “Additionally, its graduation and post-secondary readiness is very high when compared to its peers.”

Union High School outperformed “25 percent of schools statewide in academic achievement as noted by its statewide percentile ranking,” the report says. The school outperformed 39 percent of its peers in this category.

Linden High School
Linden High School, with an enrollment of 1,759, according to its narrative, is in a diverse community, where a strong comprehensive program is offered as well as an alternative one “ensuring all students have opportunities to achieve.”
This school offers 171 different courses in 11 academic areas, in addition to special curriculums in graphic design, computer aided drafting, engineering, and old world language programs in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish. There are also 60 clubs for students to join, including those focusing on the performing and fine arts, specifically art, dance, music and drama.
However, while this school is working to enhance its curriculum, according to the report, it lags in comparison to schools across the state. In fact, in comparison with peer schools such as Union, Jersey City, North Bergen and Paterson, its academic performance also lags significantly and it “significantly” lags when it comes to graduation rates across the state.

Linden High School outperformed 21 percent of schools statewide with the same demographics, also outperforming 16 percent of schools statewide when it comes to college readiness.

When it came to SAT testing, 66 percent of students participated compared to the peer ranking of 43 percent, while the statewide target for the peer group was 80 percent. Only 12 percent of students taking the SAT’s managed to score 1550 or above compared with the peer average of 23 percent and the statewide average of 43 percent. The average score for students taking the SAT at Linden High school was 1,268, compared with the peer grouping average of 1,365 and statewide average of 1,504.

Only 2 percent of students took at least one AP test in English, math, social studies or science, compared with 10 percent in their peer grouping.

This school had a graduation rate of 81.9 percent, surpassing the statewide target of 75 percent for this demographic grouping, with a dropout rate of 1.9 percent.

Arthur L. Johnson High School, Clark
At Arthur L. Johnson High School in Clark, which has an enrollment of 830, the school narrative pointed out there is a long standing tradition of strength in academics, athletics and community involvement. They also noted this high school was ranked 40th in the state by New Jersey Monthly and by Newsweek Magazine as a Top American Public High School.

This high school offers a challenging curriculum with 26 honors level courses and 20 advanced placement courses. They point out that 92 percent of their graduating classes attend college, but students are encouraged to explore and be creative in their thinking.

They cite a wide variety of electives, such as computer hardware and maintenance, marine biology, forensics, cinema studies, Holocaust and genocide studies, sports and entertainment marketing, fashion marketing, television production and anthropology as some of these offerings.

ALJ also offers 23 interscholastic sports teams and the opportunity to participate in variety of clubs and activities such as ALJ Today, a daily television news show, where students write, direct, anchor and direct programming. Students can also work on the school newspaper or magazine.

According to the state performance report card for this school district, ALJ’s academic performance is high when compared to schools across the state but its academic performance is “about average” when compared to its peer schools. Among the 30 peer schools were Cranford, Scotch Plains, Westfield, Middletown, Watchung Hills and Chatham. The state reported this high school outperforms 74 percent of schools statewide academically and 42 percent higher than schools with the same demographics, meeting 100 percent of its performance targets.

When it came to college and career readiness, this school outperformed 71 percent of schools statewide and 37 percent of schools in its peer grouping, meeting 60 percent of its performance targets in the area of college and career readiness.

According to the data provided, there was 88 percent student participation in SAT testing, which ranked in line with its peers at 89.6 percent. Clark also surpassed the state target for the peer group, which was set at 80 percent. Of students taking the SAT, 41 percent achieved a score of 1550 or above compared with the 61 percent achieved by its peer grouping. However, the state average for the same demographic grouping was 43 percent.

The state pointed out that a score of 1550 or above is indicative of a 65 percent chance of a student achieving a B average or higher in the first year of college, and a high likelihood of college success and completion.

The average SAT score of an ALJ student from the last academic year was 1,497, compared to 1,641 by its peer grouping.However it was close to the state average of 1,504. Overall graduation rates topped out at 99 percent, compared to the peer grouping rate of 97 percent and the statewide rate of 92 percent for similar peer groups. With a dropout rate of 0.1 percent, this high school was well below the statewide target of 2 percent for this peer grouping.

Next week: Hillside, Rahway, Roselle Park and Cranford high schools.