Education in the Media
What's Your School District's Graduation Rate?December 20, 2013
An NJ.com analysis finds while school districts in poor, urban communities have the worst graduation rates, vocational schools have some of the highest.
Using 2012-2013 graduation rates released by the New Jersey Department of Education this month, we compiled the 10 secondary and unified school districts with the best and worst graduation rates.
TOP 10 SCHOOL GRADUATION RATES
1. UNION COUNTY VOCATIONAL— 100%
1. OCEAN COUNTY VOCATIONAL— 100%
2. GLOUCESTER CO VOCATIONAL— 99.6%
3. GLEN ROCK BORO— 99.4%
4. MORRIS COUNTY VOCATIONAL— 98.9%
4. SCH DIST OF THE CHATHAMS— 98.9%
5. NORTHERN HIGHLANDS REG— 98.8%
6. KINNELON BORO— 98.8%
7. BERGEN COUNTY VOCATIONAL— 98.7%
7. HANOVER PARK REGIONAL— 98.7%
WORST 10 SCHOOL DISTRICT GRADUATION RATES
1. TRENTON CITY— 48.6%
2. ASBURY PARK CITY— 50.7%
3. CAMDEN CITY— 53.4%
4. PERTH AMBOY CITY— 59%
5. IRVINGTON TOWNSHIP— 60.3%
6. NEW BRUNSWICK CITY— 60.7%
7. ATLANTIC CITY— 67.2%
8. JERSEY CITY— 67.5%
9. NEWARK CITY— 67.7%
10. BRIDGETON CITY— 68.4%
While New Jersey's overall graduation rate is on the rise — 87.5 percent, according to the state — familiar patterns emerge when you take poverty into account.
The worst-performing districts have some of the state’s highest percentages of children ages 5 through 17 living with families in poverty, according to Census data. For example, in Trenton City school district, 31 percent of children are living with families in poverty— more than twice the average for New Jersey.
In addition, nine out of 10 of the worst school districts are former “Abbott” districts— low-income urban communities serving students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
On the other hand, the best school districts are either vocational schools or districts where the percentages of children living with families in poverty are among the lowest in the state. Out of the top 10 districts, Northern Highlands Regional has the highest percentage of child poverty at a lowly 3.9 percent.
That’s not surprising to Paul Tractenberg, founding co-director of the Institute on Education Law and Policy at Rutgers University.
"You find that clustered at the top are the high socioeconomic status districts, and clustered at the bottom are the low ones. Does that tell you anything new and original? I don't think so," Tractenberg said. "But it certainly would confirm the view that whether we're talking about state test scores or SATs or graduation rates, you can't ignore the impact of socioeconomic status."
This is the second year the state's figures were calculated using a new system mandated by the federal government, but Tractenberg cautioned they should still "be taken with a grain of salt."
"Although I know the department has spent a lot of time on doing and redoing and re-redoing the graduation rates, I think historically those have been fairly suspect," he said. "Whether they're accurate has been the subject of a lot of dispute and debate."
Other experts even argue that graduation rates may not even be the best way to measure success.
However, one of the most notable trends reflected in the recent data is the success of county vocational schools, which account for five of the top 10 districts. Many of those schools operate magnet programs that have similarly high rates of college placement, sending students to some of the top schools in the country, Tractenberg said.
Poverty data for children is not available for vocational school districts, but the schools serve about 8,000 students from Abbott districts.
"Particularly for those, like me, who grew up at a time when county vocational schools were seen to be dealing with 'low end' kids — kids who were not college material — it's a remarkable transformation," he said.