Once a year, the New Jersey Department of Education issues a report that is a treasure trove of information about individual school districts. 

Often overlooked, the state’s School Performance Reports — released this year on April 6, 2022 — are chock full of information that board members can use to evaluate how their districts and individual schools are performing in a variety of areas. 

Hand draw graphic of data being filteredThe School Performance Reports provide detailed data for both entire districts and individual schools in districts. For each, there are shorter “summary reports” and “detailed reports.” The reports, located online at www.njschooldata.org, are available in both English and Spanish. 

Those categories of information in the reports include academics, demographic information about students and staff, school climate, student growth, academic achievement, graduation/postsecondary outcomes, climate and environment, staff, and accountability information. The district-level report includes per-pupil expenditure information. 

Origins of the Reports The School Performance Reports, initially dubbed the School Report Card, began in 1995 when the New Jersey Legislature passed a measure, S-367, to make school districts more accountable. The measure was signed by then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. 

The intent of the annual report was to provide complete and accurate information concerning the performance of publicly-funded local schools. In 2011, the name of the annual document became the School Performance Reports. 

How Can the Reports Be Used? The School Performance Reports are designed to offer members of the public easily digestible statistical information about every school in their local district and the state. And for boards of education, the information can be used to identify trends for strategic planning and high-level discussions with their superintendents. The reports can assist districts in developing their own annual school plans in collaboration with their stakeholders, including families, staff, educators and members of the public. 

Take, for example, the information provided on demographic trends in the district, which displays three years of data for the sake of comparison. There are enrollment trends by grade, by racial and ethnic group, and by home language. Demographic information is also detailed by gender, for students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students, English learners, homeless students, and students in foster care, among other designations. 

Board members can consult that data, and use it to ask informed questions of administrators when making decisions on issues such as course offerings and curriculum, staffing and hiring, professional development for staff members, the district’s English language learner plan, comprehensive equity plan and school facility capacity. 

Because data is available separately for all schools in the district, board members can look at whether students in different schools have access to the same learning opportunities, and whether resources are equitably distributed. You can also compare your own district to similar neighboring districts to see what AP courses or extracurricular activities are available. 

On the NJDOE’s School Performance Report website, there are abundant resources, including a reference guide that suggests sample questions that school leaders might consider when reviewing the reports: 

  1. How has the student population changed over the last three years and have programs, policies and instruction changed along with demographic shifts? 
  2. Without statewide assessment or student growth data for 2019-2020 and 2020-2021, what district data can we use to monitor student growth and performance? How can we identify students that need additional support? 
  3. Are students safe in my schools and on their way to school? 
  4. How do per-pupil expenditures in my school compare to other schools in the district? What may be causing the differences? 
  5. Does the ethno-racial diversity of the educators in my school or district reflect the diversity of the state? Are there strategies for recruitment, retention and professional learning that could be implemented to ensure that all students have access to diverse and culturally responsive educators? 

The NJDOE has also provided a useful one page handout, “Guide for School Board Members,” which is available online and excerpted on this page. 

The Impact of COVID on the Reports Notes are included throughout the School Performance Reports to explain where data is missing or impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, including statewide assessment data. 

The New Jersey Student Learning Assessment was cancelled in both spring 2020 and 2021, so comparison will be hindered for a few years. Some data that was unavailable for the 2019-2020 school year, such as chronic absenteeism data, is available for the 2020-2021 year.  Note that the NJDOE recommends caution in comparing absenteeism rates.  

The NJDOE also urges caution in making comparisons between different years in certain data that was affected by the pandemic and remote learning. For example, the data for SAT, ACT and PSAT participation and performance is affected by the fact that national administration of tests was cancelled from spring 2020 through fall 2021, and some testing centers had limited capacity, so 2020-2021 results may not be comparable to prior or future years. 

Similarly, data involving student attendance, discipline and HIB investigations would not be comparable to other years. 

What’s New This Year? The 2020-2021 School Performance Reports include changes made in response to stakeholder feedback and updated federal and state requirements, including:

  • New career and college readiness data including Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and dual enrollment participation by student group and work-based learning participation.
  • Additional graduation data that includes the six-year adjusted cohort graduation rate. Note that the NJDOE now uses a different methodology to calculate the federal graduation rate, as per a U.S. Department of Education directive, and the new School Performance Reports provide the graduation rate using both the prior and the current calculation methodology.
  • Expanded staff data including staff counts and information about teachers by subject area, as requested by stakeholders.
  • New apprenticeship data that shows how many students register in apprenticeship programs after high school graduation. 
  • Links to additional data such as Start Strong assessment results and opportunity to learn data, which includes information about internet connectivity and device data during the 2020-2021 school year.

Using Information to Help Engage with the Community While the state’s 2020-2021 School Performance Reports may feel a bit overwhelming to new board members, the variety of summaries, fact sheets and the breakdown of information according to topics make the reports more manageable for those seeking ways to review their district information in comparison to others in the Garden State. 

One potentially useful feature of the reports for board members is the “Narrative” section. Both district and school-specific reports include this optional section, which allows schools and districts to share highlights, awards and achievements, and other information about programs, activities and services that are offered. 

NJSBA often urges board members to have facts about a district’s achievements and offerings handy to share with community members, and the “Narrative” section offers some possible talking points about the district. 

Among the awards and achievements that one New Jersey district lists in the “Narrative” section of its School Performance Report: “named National District of Character; schools earned Bronze Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification; named best community for music education for the 12th time; varsity field hockey won conference division; varsity cheerleaders placed 15th at national competition; and district increased anti-racism and equity efforts.”

Another district notes that the students in its high school are “able to choose from 25 Advanced Placement (AP) courses over a wide range of subject areas.” Several districts list the interscholastic sports and extracurricular activities they make available to students. Others write about the technology and STEM instructional opportunities they make available to students. 

Because the information is optional, the details vary from district to district, but the Narrative section provides concise, accurate information about your district that is easily accessible. 

Beverly Plein, consultant with NJSBA’s Professional Learning Division, and former director for the Office of Standards at the New Jersey Department of Education urges school officials to take a deep dive into the reports. “There is a tremendous amount of information that board members can use to see all that a school offers for its students, and to see where their schools may need improvement,” she said. “Sometimes people just look at assessment statistics, but there is much more to see in these reports. Board members should also note that they can request that NJDOE include additional data fields for future School Performance Reports through the Feedback survey the department has.” 

That survey is located here: www.surveymonkey.com/r/2020-21SPR.