Opinion by the Better Education for Kids staff


It’s that time of year again: the “nation’s report card”  known officially as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – is out.   To remind our readers, NAEP is the bi-annual national test of 4th and 8th graders in math and reading carried out by the US Department of Education.  NAEP is a reality-check that allows us to compare New Jersey students to national benchmarks.

Compared with 2013, NJ’s 4th and 8th graders did slightly worse.  We of course would hope to see improvement, but Secretary Duncan attributed the decline to the shift to the Common Core standards and others believe it resulted from more English-language-learners and other historically underperforming groups now taking NAEP.  In any event, one year's results do not make a trend. 

Overall in 2015, NJ averages continued to outperform the national averages.   In 4th grade math, 47% of NJ students were “proficient or better” compared with 39% of students nationally.  Likewise, in 8th grade math, 46% were proficient versus only 32% nationally.   In 4th grade reading, the numbers were NJ 43% to 35% national, and in 8th grade reading 41% for NJ and 32% national.   So on average, NJ students do better than their national peers.  This is as it should be.  NJ is one of the richest states and we spend about 60-70% more per student than the national average.

But once again, it’s important to stress that NJ’s absolute levels of proficiency are not very good.  In every case, fewer than half of NJ students were proficient.  Even if we concentrate solely on white students, only 61% of 4th graders and 55% of 8th graders were proficient in math  meaning that 39% and 45% of white students were not.  In reading, 54% of white 4th graders were proficient as were 48% of white 8th graders – meaning that 46% and 52% were not.   As in 2013, these levels of performance are simply not good enough.   Too many of our students – including many in our highly regarded suburban schools – are not demonstrating fundamental competency in these core subjects.

Worse still, the achievement gaps between minority and white students remain troublingly large, and the absolute achievement levels for our minority students remain unacceptably low.   In 4th grade math only 21% of black students and 28% of Hispanic students were proficient, and for 8th graders, the proficiency rates were 20% and 24%, respectively.  In 4th grade reading, 22% of black students were proficient and 27% of Hispanic students.  For 8th grade, the numbers were 20% and 21%, respectively.  These numbers speak for themselves. 

So while we have done a lot of work and expended a lot of resources to build a strong NJ education system, we have a lot more work to do.  And for those who believe that our suburban schools are outstanding and beyond criticism, the NAEP results should be cause for reflection and re-evaluation.   Most of our NJ schools are better than average but they are not good enough. 

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