Mixed Results for New Jersey Schools on ‘Nation’s Report Card’

John Mooney | October 31, 2019 | Education
State continues to rank among the top three on NAEP tests, but ‘proficiency’ levels slipped in a number of areas
Credit: NJTV News
Testing at a New Jersey school

Given every two years to a few thousand public school students across the state, the tests dubbed as the “Nation’s Report Card” are a cause of both pride and dismay in New Jersey education circles.

On one hand, New Jersey’s students do as well on the exams — formally the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP — as those in practically any other state.

On the other hand, that’s still not very well.

Such was the case with the national release Wednesday of the latest NAEP scores in fourth and eighth grade reading and math, including New Jersey’s standing.

And as in years before, there were conflicting headlines.

The good news: New Jersey’s results ranked among the top three states on virtually every one of the tests.

The bad: less than half of the New Jersey students taking the tests passed what is the NAEP’s well-respected standard of “proficiency,” the middle of its three performance levels. And more worrisome, that percentage dropped significantly in reading in both fourth and eighth grades since 2017, the last time the tests were administered.

In fact, the state’s drop in the average score for fourth grade reading was the steepest in the country, leaving New Jersey with barely four in 10 of the test-takers found “proficient.”

A breakdown of the results

The breakdown of the scores were as follows, including the percentage of students at NAEP’s lower “basic” level:

  • Grade 8 math: 44% proficient, 76% basic
  • Grade 8 reading: 43% proficient, 77% basic
  • Grade 4 math: 48% proficient, 85% basic
  • Grade 4 reading: 42% proficient, 72% basic

Not surprisingly, the reactions were equally conflicting. A Murphy administration spokesman cited New Jersey’s steady status as among the highest performing school systems in the country.

“New Jersey public schools consistently rank among the strongest in the nation, and thanks to the work of our educators, we are among the top handful of states again this year,” said Mike Yaple, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education.

Others were not so forgiving.

“After years of steady improvement, the results provided by NAEP today are disheartening,” said Patricia Morgan, executive director of JerseyCAN, a statewide advocacy group that has pressed for greater accountability and rigor in the public education system.

State’s own testing now under review

The release of the scores comes at an opportune time, when New Jersey is revisiting its own annual testing of students — a far more consequential measurement in terms of the day-to-day operations of a school.

The State Board of Education last week all but finalized an administration plan to scale back high-school testing in the face of concerns that schools in general put too much focus on the standardized tests and too much pressure on the students taking them.

But critics of the move contended that the exams provide an accountability that is needed to keep students on track, especially those from disadvantaged communities.

And indeed, the NAEP results were disconcerting in terms of the gaps between different races and incomes, an area that New Jersey had once pointed to as a source of pride over the years since the landmark Abbott v. Burke school-equity decisions.

In the latest NAEP results, New Jersey was at best in the middle of the pack in terms of achievement gaps.

“These declines and the persisting achievement gap are warning signs that our state must not abandon our focus on high expectations for student performance,” said Morgan. “Moving forward, we need to look closely at what worked in those earlier years and redouble our efforts in those areas.”

To review the NAEP results, follow this link.