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School Performance Reports 101: What You Need to Know to Decode the Data

The state has released a treasure trove of data about all 2,500 public schools, but digging in is partly a matter of knowing where to look

school performance CAROUSEL

As recently as a decade ago, the release of the New Jersey’s public-school report cards was a big deal, ballyhooed with press conferences and special sections in local newspapers that celebrated test scores and other achievements.

That was then. This is now: The decline of local newspapers, the rise of the Internet, and the sophistication of the data itself all contributed to Friday’s quiet announcement -- accompanied by a single press release -- that the state’s latest School Performance Reports for all 2,500-plus public schools were available online.

Some of the data is familiar. Scores from the inaugural PARCC exams last year have been public since the winter. The statistics on New Jersey’s notorious opt-out movement have also been out there for every school.

Still, the School Performance Reports, as they were renamed from reports cards three years ago, compile all that information in one place, offering a snapshot of a school’s status according to the statistics the state thinks are important.

In fact, the sheer amount of information can be overwhelming, with dozens of data points for every school. But for parents and others interested in a specific school, here’s a few takeaways from the annual reports worth keeping in mind.

Know your school

To its credit, the state’s report starts with fundamental questions: who is in your school and what is its mission?

The opening page of the report includes a school’s demographic information, its overall enrollment, makeup of students with different special needs, and various languages spoken at home.

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Small school or big, home to a diverse student population or more homogeneous -- these factors are made clear on the opening page of data.

In addition, each report is accompanied with a one-page statement from the school’s principal as to what is most important about a school, from its culture to its different offerings. If leadership matters in schools -- and most would argue that it does -- such a statement should not be overlooked.

Student performance

This is were things can get overwhelming, with the state delivering a plethora of information about the passing rates for every grade on the first PARCC cycle, down to percentiles.

Even the most hardcore may be frustrated by some of the data, in which even what is a good score is still to be determined in a test never given before. Adding to the confusion, there are now five different levels of performance to what is and isn’t meeting “expectations” under PARCC, compared with the previous three under the state’s old tests.

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But there are a few key numbers that should be heeded. On page 3 are single numbers for the overall passing rates for a given school on the PARCC language arts and math tests. These will likely appear low to many, since PARCC was in its first year and scores were naturally depressed.

Still, equally important is how that rate compares with both statewide averages and those of peer schools. The latter comes out of an analysis conducted by the state using the aforementioned demographic data

Then there are stats for individual grades, sometimes disaggregated down to race and income. Take what one will from those numbers, some more complete than others where subgroups are so small that the state is not releasing them.

But the bottom line here is how a school overall does on the tests, and the schoolwide numbers gives the best picture.

Opt-outs and others

Test scores only say so much, and this is where the performance reports get more interesting -- and vexing.

One key stat is the percent of students who took the tests, found in the participation rates on page 3.

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New Jersey’s high opt-out rate last year is well known, if not well defined by the state, but it varies widely by districts and schools. If a quarter or half of a student body skipped the tests, a lower -- or higher -- passing rate offers a limited picture.

The new report cards also provide a number of other intriguing snapshots. For the first time, the reports include the percentage of students participating in the visual and performing arts in elementary and middle schools, as well as high schools.

The report also includes statistics regarding what happens to students after they leave high school and move on to two- or four-year colleges, comparing them for the first time to statewide statistics.

There’s a rate for every school on “chronic absenteeism” -- or defined as more than 18 absences a year -- not a small factor for any number reasons.

And the performance reports continue to provide the one place to see how a high school fares on the SAT college entrance test, arguably the biggest arbiter of all for some communities.

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