Blue RibbonNew Jersey’s public schools are the envy of the nation. That may sound like an overstatement, but the facts are clear: in almost every conceivable category, the Garden State is golden when it comes to public education.

Of course, the reasons why our students achieve at the level they do is complex. And frankly, that is the subject for another article. But when it comes to the question of just how well our students perform, the answer is simple. New Jersey’s public schools are really, really good!

Who generates the state comparison data?

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) generates the data that is used to compare the 50 states in public school performance. This data is created through an analysis of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas. Assessments are conducted periodically in mathematics, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography, U.S. history, and beginning in 2014, in technology and engineering literacy.

Since NAEP assessments are administered uniformly using the same sets of test booklets across the nation, NAEP results serve as a common metric for all states and selected urban districts. The assessment stays essentially the same from year to year, with only carefully documented changes. This permits NAEP to provide a clear picture of student academic progress over time.

Although NCES is part of the federal Department of Education, it is important to note that the 26-member board that governs NAEP is bipartisan and independent.

Excellence in reading, writing and math

So, what do the NAEP scores tell us about New Jersey’s public schools?

Our reading scores are among the nation's best: New Jersey is among the top two states in the nation for having the largest proportion of public school fourth graders scoring at the highest two levels in reading.

What about eighth grade? New Jersey ranks second in the nation for having the largest proportion of public school eighth graders scoring at the highest two levels in reading.

In math, New Jersey’s performance is equally impressive. New Jersey is among the top four states in the nation for having the largest proportion of public school fourth graders scoring at the highest two levels. And the news is even better among eighth graders; New Jersey is among the top three states in the nation for having the largest proportion of public school eighth graders scoring at the highest two levels in math on the NAEP.

When it comes to writing, we’re Number One! Not only do New Jersey eighth graders rank first in NAEP writing scores, their performance ranks far above any other state in the nation. (There is no state comparison for the fourth-grade writing NAEP exam.)

Urban schools show great progress

StudentsNew Jersey’s urban schools have garnered tremendous attention in the last few years. Everyone agrees that some districts and schools need to do a better job of meeting the needs of students. That’s why NJEA has launched its Priority School Initiative, which is the subject of President Barbara Keshishian’s message on Page 4 as well as the sidebar below.

But don’t let the rhetoric fool you—New Jersey’s urban schools have made tremendous progress in the last few decades, thanks in large part to the State Supreme Court’s Abbott decisions. These decisions have been heralded as the most important legal advances for public school children since Brown v. Board of Education. In addition to parity funding, the decisions led to creation of the successful, high quality Abbott preschool program, an extensive schools construction program, and a series of academic and wraparound programs to support at-risk students in the state’s urban school districts.

What are the statistics that prove it? In June, Education Week declared that New Jersey is Number One in the nation in high graduation rates among African-American and Latino students.

Of course, graduation rates reflect systemic quality. The Nation’s Report Card, prepared by NCES, also shows that regardless of socio-economic status, our students still outperform those in other states. For example, among students in low income families, New Jersey ranks first in the nation in writing achievement scores—far higher than any other state.

In addition, New Jersey is among the best in the nation in math scores among students in low-income families. Statistically, only three states out-perform New Jersey when it comes to the percentage scoring proficient or higher on the fourth-grade math NAEP and only one state out-performs New Jersey when it comes to the percentage scoring proficient or higher in eighth grade.

Writing, math—what about reading? New Jersey is among the best in the nation in reading scores among students in low income families. Statistically, only two states out-perform New Jersey when it comes to fourth-grade reading and no state out-performs New Jersey when it comes to the percentage scoring proficient or higher on the eighth-grade reading assessment.

Experts agree that one reason New Jersey’s low-income students are performing so well is because of the state’s commitment to preschool. New Jersey ranks first in the nation in the percentage of three- and four-year olds who are enrolled in preschool. Naturally, the quality of those preschools is important. Again, New Jersey takes the prize. The National Institute for Early Education Research reports that New Jersey's high quality pre-school programs in its largest urban school districts are showing big long-lasting gains in student language, literacy and math.

Are we preparing students for college?

Higher EducationOkay, New Jersey is tops in graduation rates for minority students, but what about overall performance? For the fifth year in a row, New Jersey ranks first in the percentage of students graduating high school.

Okay, a lot of students get a diploma, but are they well-prepared? The answer is yes: The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education gives New Jersey the fifth-highest rating for how well its schools prepare students for college. The center also places New Jersey among the best in the nation in students going on to college (New Jersey ranks third.)

Advanced Placement (AP) scores, analyzed by The College Board, tell the same story. New Jersey’s public school students are first in the nation in the average AP score and are among the top states in the nation in the percentage of AP exams taken by public high school students that result in scores high enough to qualify for college credit (a score of three or higher).

The news gets even better. It’s the fourth year in a row that New Jersey has ranked first in the average AP score, and the 2011 average of 3.35 is by far the highest any state has ever scored.

Unlike NAEP scores, AP exam results can be analyzed to compare the performance of students in public schools to those who attend private schools. We are proud to report that in New Jersey, public school students score higher than private school students on their AP exams.

Final thoughts

NAEP scores, AP exams, graduation rates--what does it all mean? Sure, New Jersey has an impressive showing in many individual categories, but are we really doing a good job? An annual, independent publication shows that we are. The 2011 edition of Education State Rankings has declared that New Jersey has the best public schools in the nation. This ranking is based on 19 factors that measure the quality of its public schools, including students test scores, special education, and class size.

Of course, professional educators care less about overall statistics and more about individual students. Teachers and administrators understand that while they play an important role in the success of their students, public schools are only one part of the equation. Caring families and supportive communities tell the rest of the story. That’s why it can be argued that we might be proudest of this fact: New Jersey ranks among the top two states in Education Week's "Chance for Success Index," which measures a state's ability to give its children the greatest chance for success and shows that it is doing more in preparing young people for the challenges they will face as adults. This index is based on 13 indicators that highlight whether young children get off to a good start, succeed in elementary and secondary school, and hit crucial educational and economic benchmarks as adults.

As NJEA and its members have argued for years, test scores only tell part of the story. But giving every child a chance to succeed in life—that’s what great public schools are all about.