The annual numbers from the Nation's Report Card can be confounding. Test scores cutting across grades, subjects, incomes, and racial groups . . . .
That makes it easier to understand how by some measures -- according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released yesterday -- New Jersey is tops in the nation. Or close. By others, it's in the middle of the pack. Or worse.
Bottom line: New Jersey's public school students once again did quite well overall, arguably as well as any.
The new NAEP numbers are for Grades 4 and 8 in reading and math. As they typically do, New Jersey students finished in the top three in both grades and on both tests. New Jersey's scores were as good as any state's in the country except, arguably, Massachusetts,.
And while the headlines will be about how the nationwide numbers haven't much changed in recent years -- a seeming indictment of public education, standardized testing, or both -- New Jersey's scores have seen slow but steady growth over the past decade.
In 2003, 21 percent of eighth graders tested below "basic" levels in reading; in 2011, it's 16 percent. While just a third were "proficient" or better, now it's close to half. The same holds true for math, where the gains going back into the early 1990's are even better.
Maybe only half the students being deemed proficient is nothing to cheer about, but NAEP is about measuring progress. New Jersey's students exceed the national numbers.
But the numbers tell only part of the story, and this is where the debates arise. While it does well overall, New Jersey has a significant achievement gap. No surprise, given the state's wide income disparities -- and the fact that those disparities have been the focus of court litigation and funding battles for 30 years.
According to NAEP, 92 percent of white eighth-graders were basic or better in reading, while just 71 percent Hispanic students and 66 percent black reached the mark. The gap was even wider among fourth graders in reading.
In math, the overall gaps were comparable, but especially striking was the disparity among students who reached the "advanced" levels. In fourth grade, for instance, 12 percent of white students were graded "advanced," compared with just 2 percent of black and Hispanic students.
Those gaps are largely the product of the income differences, some say, but they have given Gov. Chris Christie plenty of fodder in his push for education reforms in the state's poorest districts.
In announcing the scores yesterday, the state Department of Education also issued the state's achievement gap rankings, comparing low-income students New Jersey with their counterparts in other states and Washington, D.C. One ranking was as low as 50 out of 51.
"In spite of our strong overall scores, we must find the right balance between celebrating our successes and a sense urgency to improve a system where in too many places, the zip code in which you're born determines your educational outcomes," said acting education commissioner Chris Cerf.
Still, New Jersey was as one of just three states where the gap in fourth-grade math scores had narrowed between white and minority students since the early 1990's. And while other gaps have remained, minority and low-income students have seen gains on nearly all of the tests.
The 2011 NAEP was given this winter to fourth graders in 115 schools and eighth graders in 135 schools. Randomly selected, more than 5,000 students in each grade took the tests.