Interactive Map: Elementary and Middle School Student Growth Measures

How elementary and middle schools fared on a new state measure of student growth in language arts testing. The vast majority had typical growth (blue). To see the actual growth percentiles and NJASK passing rates for an individual school, zoom in to your geographic area and click on the school.

Source: N.J. School Performance Report

Welcome to the new math that will calculate how New Jersey’s public schools are going to be publicly judged and measured. And beware, it’s going to take some getting used to.

The Christie administration yesterday finally released its “School Performance Reports” for 2011-2012, a new version of the long-running School Reports Cards that have been an annual spring rite since the mid-1990s.

And while the new reports use many of the same sources of data as years past, they add a layer of interpretation as to what the data means — at least as the Christie administration sees it.

Does a school match up to its counterparts? Are students gaining on their peers? Which schools are hitting their state-defined targets? Are students on track to be “college and career ready” — starting in elementary school?

The state’s new multipage and color-coded report for every school – 15 pages for elementary schools, 11 for high schools — seeks to answer a few of those questions, relying on a series of new tools and methods.

For the first time, for example, elementary and middle schools are being judged not only on overall proficiency on the state’s language arts and math NJASK tests, but also using the new “student growth percentiles” (SGP).

In short, the median SGP looks at how the typical student in a school is improving or not from one year to the next — in comparison with other students at similar achievement levels statewide. (And get used to that term: Regardless of how controversial the student SGP is, the tool will soon be used to measure teacher effectiveness as well.)

The state’s minimum target for schools is a median SGP above 35 percent — or higher than two-thirds of the comparable group.

But a general measure of success is anything above 50 percent. To put that in perspective, only 5 percent of schools are even above 65 percent. They include a few unexpected ones, too.

For instance, while most of the very top fliers in median SGP are still among the more affluent or at least suburban communities, the very highest is Lodi’s Columbus School, with a median SGP of 81.5 in language arts and 77 in math.

Also in the Top Five is a Newark charter school that doesn’t always get much attention, the Discovery Charter School.

But the SGP is only the beginning. The state has provided a breadth of data in individual reports for schools, including peer comparisons.

In almost every case, a school will be matched up against 30 schools with similar demographics, factoring in the percentage of low-income students, those with limited English skills, and those with disabilities. So even a school that does well statewide may not fare as well against other similar schools.

None of this is without questions, and a few complaints.

The state is a few months later than usual providing the report, in part due to a lengthy period of review and revisions to correct errors in either what districts submitted or what was computed. And initially there were many errors, the department confirmed as much, and a few surely remain from early reports.

In addition, questions have been raised as to how the peer groupings were tabulated, with the state going so far as to provide a white paper to explain its methods.

The 16-page interpretive guide for the performance reports is longer than the reports themselves. All told, it’s a lot to grapple with, but state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf and his department maintain it will give a fuller picture to families and communities about how their about how schools are doing and how they can improve.

“If you give this information to the schools, they will use it to get better,” Cerf said this week.

“If the ultimate goal of this is to measure how we get kids ready for the next phase of life,” he added, “this gives parents the opportunity to raise real questions.”

View Interactive Map of high school SAT scores.