More than one in four "middle class" public high schools in New Jersey had half or more of their students fail to reach the college readiness benchmark, according to a recent report from the Pacific Research Institute.
Middle class schools were defined by the study as those who have one-third or fewer of the students classified as low-income.
The report evaluated results from 2014 SAT testing data as well as the National Assessment for Educational Progress to see how middle class students were performing.
"Are regular New Jersey public schools with predominantly non-low-income student populations performing well?" asks Lance Izumi, an education policy expert and author of the report. "Lots of middle-class parents think so and believe that education problems are limited to places such as inner-city Newark. Yet, based on a variety of indicators, many of these schools may not be as good as parents think they are."
Of the 194 middle class public high schools in New Jersey, there were 114 schools with 80 percent of their eligible students taking the SAT exam. Of those, 28 percent had half or more of their SAT-takers fail to score at or above the college readiness benchmark score of 1550.
"According to the SAT data, a significant proportion of predominantly non-low-income New Jersey high schools were not preparing at least half or more of their students for likely success in higher education," the report states.
The poor test results also apply to quite affluent neighborhoods in New Jersey. For instance, at one high school where only 1 percent of the school’s students were classified as economically disadvantaged, 56 percent of the test takers failed to score at the college-readiness benchmark.
Examining the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the NAEP, researchers found that 43 percent of middle-class New Jersey students failed to score at the proficient level on the fourth-grade reading test, and 38 percent failed to reach that level on the fourth-grade math test.
On the eighth grade tests, 49 percent of middle-class students failed to reach proficiency on the reading exam, and 42 percent failed to reach proficiency on the math exam.
The poor college readiness and proficiency scores on the SAT and the NAEP stand in contrast to the results on New Jersey’s 2014 state exams, the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge and the High School Proficiency Assessment, which are much less rigorous examinations.
Most New Jersey students passed the easier state exams.
"The contrast between the performance of New Jersey students on the harder college entrance and national exams versus the easier state exams shows how parents can be fooled into thinking that their children and their local schools are doing just fine when they may not be," said Izumi.
"The findings of the study clearly demonstrate that parents in poor, urban neighborhoods aren’t the only ones who should be concerned about their children’s schools," says Izumi. "The results should cause middle-class parents to rethink their views on the quality of their neighborhood public school, and consequently, to open their minds to other education options, choices, and policy changes that would allow their children to escape underperforming schools and attend better-performing alternatives."
The study recommends that New Jersey policymakers consider several reforms such as education savings accounts and tax-credit programs. "Increased choice for parents of all income levels, therefore, should be the guiding principle for New Jersey policymakers," Izumi said.
Izumi has studied middle class schools in Illinois, Texas, Michigan, and Colorado with similar results, finding that substantial percentages of students were performing below proficiency on state and national tests.