The annual release of scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – the so-called Nation’s Report Card – has long been cause for some celebration for New Jersey.
By and large, New Jersey does fairly well compared with other states when a sampling of its students take the tests, which are staggered in different subjects and grade levels each year.
But concerns are growing about the state of New Jersey's public schools, and yesterday’s release of new NAEP scores for 12th graders in reading and math for 2009 set off some debate as to exactly what they meant.
On paper, the scores were more mediocre than usual, with New Jersey’s sampling of about 3,000 12th graders above the nation’s average in math but only even with the national norms in reading.
Only 11 states’ results were pulled out in the pilot test, so there are no 50-state rankings, but New Jersey was not among the five states higher than the averages on both tests. They were Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and South Dakota.
And unlike previous education commissioners who usually played up the positive, acting Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks issued a press release that said the results pointed to the “urgency” in adopting Gov. Chris Christie’s planned reform measures for teacher evaluation, merit pay and charter schools.
“While these results show that our seniors score well when compared to other participating states in math, the bigger picture is clear in that we must do better,” she said in a statement.
With Christie often at odds lately with local educators and their leaders, Hendricks' remarks set off a reaction from school proponents who saw them as more political than pedagogical.
“I’m a bit perplexed at the message that the department is putting out,” said Steve Baker, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). “Clearly, there is something else at play in how they are interpreting these. When it comes to NAEP scores in general, they are something New Jersey can be proud of.”
Still, there are some causes for continued concern in the latest results, and a few possible explanations as well for how a state that soars in younger grades comes a bit back to earth in 12th grade.
In math, New Jersey’s students overall scored 156 out of 300, four points above the national average, one of six states that exceeded the national norm.
In reading, New Jersey seniors averaged 288 out of 500, not a statistically significant difference from national average of 287.
The scores for white students were 22-33 points higher than those for black and Hispanic students, depending on the test. Those are roughly the same as the achievement gaps nationally, if not slightly wider.
New Jersey’s investments in urban schools, ordered by the state Supreme Court in its Abbott v. Burke decision, are only slowly reaching up into the high schools. Some high school reform efforts started under the Abbott mandates have, in fact, stalled.
An added factor is that New Jersey continues to boast among the highest graduation rates in the nation, meaning that a broader cross-section of student is still in high school in senior year, said Richard DeLisi, dean of Rutgers Graduate School of Education.
Still, DeLisi said there are some questions raised in the latest numbers about why reading has not kept up with math, and also about the test itself and where it puts its emphasis in each subject area.
But overall, he said, New Jersey’s track record on NAEP continues to be a strong one.
“I’m not saying it’s a perfect measure, but it’s the only one we have that can benchmark a state in student learning,” he said. “And by this we do pretty well overall.”