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April 22, 2013

On April 10, 2013, the NJ Department of Education (DOE) released their much anticipated, and much delayed, School Performance Reports, which replace the State School Report Cards.

In releasing the Performance Reports, the DOE claimed they will “help users better understand school performance in the context of state performance and the performance of similar ‘peer schools.’”

The Performance Reports, however, fail to live up to this claim. Unlike the School Report Cards, the new reports are dense, confusing and needlessly complex. NJ school administrators have already raised serious concerns about inaccurate data and the convoluted and controversial school “peer rankings.” 

Most importantly, the complexity of the Performance Reports defeats their basic purpose: to give parents and taxpayers key information about the overall performance of their public schools and districts – successes, gains and challenges. Instead, the reports use very complicated methods of sorting and comparing individual schools with “peer” groupings, statewide averages and other benchmarks. This complexity makes the reports difficult, if not impossible, for parents, concerned citizens, lawmakers and others to understand and use to engage in positive efforts to support New Jersey’s public education system. 

The cornerstones of the new Performance Reports are comparisons of individual schools’ test scores, graduation rates and other indicators with schools that supposedly share similar student enrollment characteristics. The DOE has decided to no longer use District Factor Groups (DFG) for comparison. DFGs placed districts, not schools, into eight groups based on the socioeconomic conditions of the communities they served. Instead of the DFGs, the DOE is using a  methodology called “Propensity Score Matching, ” which creates a list of “peers” for each school in New Jersey, grouping schools together based on shared demographic characteristics, namely student poverty, limited English proficiency, and Special Education classification. 

However, the DOE has made some questionable analytic decisions that result in comparisons among schools that actually vary quite dramatically in terms of their student makeup. This variation in so-called "peer" groupings of schools has generated confusion and frustration among local educators and stakeholders.

In addition, the DOE took the additional step of comparing each individual school to both its "peers" and the state overall using percentile ranks. The reports compare a school’s position relative to other schools using a scale from zero to ninety-nine, representing the percentage of “peer schools” that school is outperforming.  

The DOE's use of this method creates problems because percentile ranks are relative, or in other words a zero-sum game. A school can only be seen as successful, or “highly performing,” if it is outpacing its “peer schools,” regardless of its actual achievement. The DOE's failure to provide an adequate context for these rankings means users will have no idea about the absolute distance between a school ranked at the bottom and one ranked at the top. The schools may vary widely in performance, or hardly at all.  Without offering any additional data on the range of scores, the user is unable to determine how meaningful those rankings are.

The DOE then goes further by labeling schools using an even broader categorization of the percentile rankings. The computer-generated “school narratives” assign schools to one of five performance categories ranging from “very high” to “significantly lagging.” This means that, regardless of absolute achievement, many schools are labeled as "lagging" simply because they are on the lower end of their peer group, not because they are underperforming in any meaningful sense.

For example, if a school has a proficiency rate of 95%, but the majority of its peers score even higher, this school will have a low percentile ranking and will be labeled as “lagging,” despite a high level of achievement. In another scenario, a school may have a proficiency rate of 75% and a low peer percentile rank, but could be separated from its top performing peer by just a few, or as many as 25, percentage points.

In choosing to present the data in this way, the DOE has created a framework of competitive rankings and an emphasis on labeling performance as “lagging,” even among the state’s highest performing schools. The reports do not give parents clear information to realistically judge their children’s schools’ performance, and they burden school administrators with the unforgiving task of explaining the complicated and sometimes contradictory classifications. 

"The over-emphasis on complex rankings is consistent with NJ Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf's continuing narrative of 'failing public schools' when, in fact, New Jersey's public schools are among the best in the nation," said David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director. "Rather than helping facilitate community conversations and collaborative efforts to improve our schools, the new Performance Reports are clearly designed to justify the Christie Administration's agenda of cutting State investment in public education and imposing heavy-handed, top-down interventions from Trenton."

Using the DOE's own labeling, the new Performance Reports are "significantly lagging." 


Press Contact:

Sharon Krengel
Policy and Outreach Director
973-624-1815, x 24