Are the public schools serving New Jersey’s middle-class students performing well? Lots of parents think so. They believe that student performance problems are limited to low-income areas in the inner city — in places like Newark or Camden.
But many suburban public schools serving middle-class New Jersey students are not performing as well as parents think, according to a new study from the Pacific Research Institute.
The PRI study first looked at how New Jersey students from non-low-income families scored on the National Assessment of Educational Progress math and reading exams in 2015. The NAEP is often referred to as “the nation’s report card” and is viewed as a gold-standard indicator of student performance.
On the 2015 NAEP eighth-grade math exam, 42 percent of middle-class New Jersey test-takers failed to score at the proficient level, which is defined as having full competency over the subject matter.
Worse, on the eighth-grade NAEP reading exam, 49 percent of middle-class New Jersey test-takers failed to score at the proficient level.
Despite these troubling proficiency rates on this respected national exam, many middle-class New Jersey parents believe that their local public schools are doing fine.
Part of the reason is that New Jersey’s own state exams have, until recently, been easy to pass. The PRI study found that there were very few predominantly middle-class public schools where half or more of the students in at least one grade level failed to achieve math or English proficiency on the less-than-rigorous 2014 state exams.
Performance on the SAT was a different story.
Take Bergen County’s Waldwick High School, where a microscopic 1 percent of students in 2014 were classified as low-income.
On that year’s state high school exam, the High School Proficiency Assessment, 100 percent of Waldwick juniors scored at the proficient level on the English test. Ninety percent scored at the proficient mark on the math exam.
In contrast, 56 percent of Waldwick’s SAT takers failed to score at the college-readiness benchmark of 1550.
According to the College Board, which oversees the SAT, a score of 1550, out of a total of 2400, is associated with a 65 percent probability of achieving a first year college GPA of B-minus or higher. Also, research shows that students meeting the 1550 benchmark are significantly more likely to enroll in a four-year college and earn a bachelor’s degree within four years than students who fail to meet that benchmark.
At Arthur Johnson High School in Union County, only 6 percent of students were classified as low-income in 2014. More than nine in 10 juniors scored at the proficient level on the state reading and math exams. Yet 62 percent of the school’s SAT takers failed to meet the college-readiness benchmark.
College readiness is a problem in many middle-class areas in New Jersey. According to the PRI study, 114 high schools with predominantly non-low-income student populations met the state’s target of 80 percent or more of seniors taking the SAT. At 32 of these schools — nearly three in 10 — half or more of SAT takers failed to score at or above the college-readiness benchmark.
Education writer Laura Waters, who is also a member of the school board in Mercer County, has observed: “It’s painful, then, to acknowledge that our cherished small-town public schools are not adequately preparing our children for college and careers. But that’s what both data and educational experts are telling us.”
Waters rightly posits, “Perhaps it’s time for a suburban version of education reform.”