Pass or Fail? NJ Schools and the Nation’s Report Card

John Mooney | May 19, 2010
The National Assessment of Educational Progress delivers so much data that interpretation is in the eye of the beholder

Ten years ago, the National Assessment of Educational Progress—better known as the Nation’s Report Card—was barely a topic of conversation in New Jersey education circles, with few districts even participating in the test.

With the test now required of every state, NAEP scores have become the subject of press releases and pronouncements to either the excellence or the troubles of New Jersey’s public schools—or sometimes both.

That was no clearer than in the last week as both those seeking major changes to New Jersey schools and those defending the status quo were citing the latest NAEP scores for fourth- and eighth-grade reading.

For instance, more than a month after NAEP released the state-by-state scores, New Jersey’s education commissioner, Bret Schundler, put out a press release pronouncing the numbers a big success—with a big caveat.

“New Jersey students have proven yet again that they are among the best readers in the nation at their grade levels, and this report should be a source of pride for our state,” Schundler’s statement read. “Teachers deserve credit for helping their students achieve such excellent results.”

Then the caveat.

“However, there is still much work to be done in terms of closing achievement gaps,” read the statement. “We have clearly made progress over the years, but not enough.”

Such is the nature of the times, and the NAEP tests themselves, a complicated array of exams given to samples of students in different subject areas each year.

For New Jersey, its students typically fare well in comparison with other states. The latest scores for 2009 found New Jersey in the Top 5 in both fourth and eighth grades, depending on which measure was used.

But that’s the key variable, as the NAEP tests are so full of data that they can be read as both a success and a failure in the same numbers. And at a time when Schundler is arguing for widespread reforms of public schools but also needing those schools to sign on, it’s a handy tool to appeal to both causes.

“People interpret the scores the way they want,” said Michael Griffith, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, a Colorado-based clearinghouse. “They will pull out the failures or pull out the successes, every number tells a little different story.”

“If you look at the scores nationally, New Jersey does do OK,” he continued. “But if you look at things over time, things aren’t much improving.”

And there have been some testy moments in determining which mattered more. Last week, as Schundler was pushing a bill that would bring a form of school vouchers to New Jersey, a newspaper column portrayed his office as dismissing the state’s high ranking on the latest NAEP. That prompted angry responses from districts and politicians saying that Schundler and his boss, Gov. Chris Christie, were only trying to tear down public schools.

Now, Schundler appears to be seeking to quiet those critics with more upbeat assessment, as New Jersey prepares its application to the federal Race to the Top program, potentially worth $400 million to the state. The Race to the Top applications are due June 1, and Schundler has been going full-time in raising support for the measure.

“Something that every state is struggling with is how to come up with statewide reforms while not taking away from the local districts,” Griffith said. “It’s a tough balance.”