Judging the Quality of Your School District
What every family should know about its local public schools.
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You and your husband live in the sprawling suburb of Hamilton in Mercer County with your two children. Brendan, your 11-year-old son, is a stellar student who just started middle school, while 9-year-old Emma seems less engaged with her schoolwork and easily distracted. You love the neighborhood elementary school—everyone does—but you’ve heard mixed reviews about the high school. “Not enough Advanced Placement (AP) courses,” says a friend. “The guidance department is too understaffed to help during college application time,” says another.
And so, this question circulates unendingly in your brain: Is it time to move to a new district?
It’s a common scenario for New Jersey families who live in a state with 590 school districts containing 2,005 elementary schools and 511 secondary schools. Sure, there are various sources that claim to convey accurate information about school quality, but how do you know whether this district or that school offers what our imaginary couple seeks: a thriving public school community that’ll nurture their children's different learning styles while challenging them to do their academic best?
Here are three sources of information that, to different degrees, can help your family make informed decisions about your local school district.
Start with the facts. If you want the most recent information on student growth and proficiency for a particular school, go directly to the database of the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE). Don’t be intimidated: the DOE has recently made changes that provide families with meaningful information to make judgments about school quality.
First, go to the DOE website (state.nj.us/education) and click on “Data” in the top bar. There you’ll see a menu. Click on “NJ School Performance Reports,” where you’ll be able to select a particular school or district by clicking on “Search for Reports.”
There are two types: a “Summary Report” and “Detail Report.” The former gives you a quick overview of student achievement and school quality. The latter provides pages of data, including student PARCC and SAT scores, absentee rates (an important indicator of school culture), AP courses offered, the number of students enrolled in APs and passing end-of-year tests, technology and college readiness, school demographics and enrollment.
The state provides you with easy access to data, but what should you make of all those high school rankings you read about?
Perhaps the most popular high school stats are published by US News & World Report. Each year it ranks the “best” high schools, both nationally and state-by-state. Great, right? Not always.
Here’s how it works. US News works with a group called RTI International and rates each high school in the country using a rubric that includes schools’ scores on state standardized tests (weighted for student poverty), disadvantaged students’ performance in relation to state averages, high school graduation rates and the College Readiness Index, which relies completely on how many students pass AP courses.
Here’s the problem: This process is easy to game. There are schools that pressure students to take AP courses in ninth grade simply to push their results higher for US News’ rankings. The whole system is set up to rank schools not by how much students learn in high school, but what their proficiency levels are at the end, reducing complex measurements to a reductive single score. Hence, schools that have competitive admissions or draw from a pool of top students can rank at the top of the list regardless of whether students continue to make progress.
Most of those who made the Top 10 Public High Schools list are county magnets run by county vocational or technical programs. Elizabeth and McNair are district magnets with highly competitive admission requirements. The others (Princeton and Chatham) are traditional public schools in high-income districts. All 10 press students to take lots of AP courses.
“The reason US News leans so heavily on AP is that the data is available,” education researcher Nat Malkus wrote in a 2017 article for American Enterprise Institute. “But that’s like the proverbial drunk looking for his keys underneath the street lamp. The rankings promote the notion that the best high schools are the ones with the highest outcomes, and because AP success is the only outcome measure they have, they use it—even if the way the top schools generate those outcomes is a dubious practice.”
In addition, education reporter Adam Clark writes in The Star-Ledger, “superintendents have already dismissed the ratings as oversimplified and misleading, and the state said the ratings don’t capture the full picture of what happens inside a school.”
Can sites like greatschools.org and niche.com help determine school quality? How should you look at their ranking systems? Much the same: there’s little attention paid to student growth over time and great attention paid to student proficiency at the end of four years. Jack Schneider, an education historian at College of the Holy Cross, says, “schools are not monolithically good or bad. They’re strong and weak in many different ways.”
How do you gauge those “different ways?” How do you get beyond raw scores on AP tests? The answer is to visit prospective schools you’re considering. Attend a school sporting event, speak with other parents and observe the dynamics among children. Meet the principal. Go to a school board meeting and listen for hints of sustained leadership and consensus. Look at the district website and check out the extracurricular activities. Go to an evening concert and catch the vibe. See if the school has an open house event for prospective families.
After all, the necessary activity of data crunching still won’t give Emma and Brendan’s parents—or you—a sense of school culture and climate, which some consider the most important indicators of school quality. Yes, data is important. But in the end, there’s no substitute for being there.
TOP 10 PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOLS IN NJ
1. High Technology High School, Lincroft
2. Bergen County Academies, Hackensack
3. Bergen County Technical High School, Teterboro
4. Biotechnology High School, Freehold
5. Dr. Ronald E. McNair High School, Jersey City
6. Elizabeth High School, Elizabeth
7. Union County Magnet High School, Scotch Plains
8. Chatham High School, Chatham
9. Princeton High School, Princeton
10. Academy for Information Technology, Scotch Plains
Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for a range of publications. A mother of four, she served on the Lawrence Township Board of Education for 12 years, nine as president. The views expressed here are her own.