State’s report cards don’t provide a full picture


   The annual New Jersey School Report Cards are out again — and, as usual, everyone with an agenda to push or an ax to grind has something to say about what the numbers mean.
   And, as usual, they mean whatever the folks who are telling you what they mean want them to mean — or, rather, what they want you to think they mean.
   Take, for example, the interesting statistical trend education officials have observed about the general decline in student performance between elementary and middle school. At the elementary level, students skip school less, as measured by attendance records, and learn more, as measured by standardized tests, than at the middle school level.
   But wait, say middle school teachers. Look at student-teacher ratios. All across the state, they are consistently higher in middle schools than in elementary schools. And everyone knows that lower student-teacher ratios make for more welcome classrooms and a more favorable learning environment.
   But wait, say teachers and administrators in school districts with higher-than-average student-teacher ratios. Look at our test scores. We may not have the optimum number of students per teacher, but our students perform far better on math, language arts and science tests than students in other nearby districts whose student-teacher ratios happen to be lower.
   But wait, say teachers, students and parents in those other nearby districts. Our districts have an entirely different socioeconomic makeup from yours. Your performance is actually worse than that of other comparable districts, while ours is measurably better than the median for our cohort. And you spend a lot more money per pupil compared to your peer districts than we do.
   But wait, say the school finance experts. Don’t compare per-pupil costs in districts with large numbers of disadvantaged students with those in more affluent areas. And don’t necessarily expect to see a direct correlation between per-pupil expenditures and student performance; each district has unique circumstances — socioeconomic, political, geographic, historical – that make this connection a tenuous one.
   But wait, say the disgruntled taxpayers. If spending more per pupil doesn’t necessarily translate into improved performance, why are we pouring so much money into public education, particularly in urban areas? It’s obvious from the data — test scores, truancy, dropout rates, staff retention, graduation rates and all the rest — that the schools that are spending the most money are doing the worst job of educating their students.
   But wait, say the defenders of the urban districts. The Report Cards don’t tell the whole story. They don’t begin to describe the incredible obstacles city schools have to overcome just to get kids to come to school, let alone keep them there. They don’t measure conditions in their homes, their neighborhoods and out in the streets that build barriers rather than bridges to education.
   But wait, says the confused citizen. If the Report Cards churn out page after page of statistics about student output, but factor in very little of the input that’s responsible for producing a well-rounded education, what good are they?
   That, of course, is the question everyone should be asking.
   And here’s the answer: The New Jersey School Report Cards provide reams of objective data related to a field — public education — that requires subjective assessment. They are nothing more, nothing less than assemblages of marginally useful indicators of school district and student performance at a particular point in time. They are, when all is said and done, snapshots of a subject that can only be captured in a much bigger picture — and that’s a context we would all be well advised to keep in mind as those with narrower vision try to convince us otherwise.