State Releases New School Data

Make sense of the latest figures, working with NJ Spotlight's updated School Report Card

New Jersey’s high school scores are improving. Middle school scores took a dip. And take your pick on the direction of elementary school achievement, which often depended on the grade.

Yet one thing is consistent: School expenses continue to rise, with the state averages for most districts topping $15,000 per student last year. And after a tough two years of state aid cuts, local taxpayers are sharing more and more of that total.

Such is the numbers game in New Jersey public education these days. And with data released by the state today, NJ Spotlight’s School Report Card 2010 culls the most important numbers for 2009-2010 for every school in the New Jersey.

Before diving in, readers should be cautious about using this data as the final arbiter of school quality or efficiency, especially as education debate has increasingly become a political one. Case in point, the Christie administration was qualifying its own numbers into yesterday evening, saying a new math for school spending will be used in the future.

In the meantime, the latest data is the only quantifiable statewide measure available, and it gives the public at least some gauge of a school’s performance against its home district, its socio-economic peers and the state as whole.

Student Achievement

Student test scores may be the most important indicator of the group when it comes to judging schools, and there are plenty to pick from. New Jersey tests students on a statewide basis seven times during their school careers, not including the nationwide SAT and Advanced Placement exams.

Depending on the test, New Jersey’s schools could be judged as improving or regressing. In the high schools, there was one of the strongest increases statewide in several years, with close to 80 percent of the students passing the state’s proficiency exams on the first try. Yet the numbers are more mixed in the lower grades, with some equally significant drops in the middle schools.

A better gauge is to look at how a school fares against its peers, and the NJ Spotlight School Report Card 2010 provides a side-by-side comparison for every test.

Financial and Other Data

Since the advent of the state’s reporting more than 20 years ago, New Jersey has measured school spending on a per-pupil basis to make comparisons easier. In the mid-1990s, it further broke the numbers down into different categories that would allow schools to see how much they spend per child on classroom instruction, administrative costs and so on.

NJ Spotlight’s Report Card 2010 includes those breakdowns, comparing them against the statewide averages. In addition, it breaks down where the money comes from, be it local, state, federal or other sources.

Some of these numbers have long been suspect as well, leaving out large sums spent on transportation, special education and other expenses. Other state and national statistics have shown data both well above and well below these averages. The Christie administration said it seeks to clean that up in the future, bringing the spending totals more in line with data collected nationally. The changes will be reflected in future Report Cards.