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Open letter to South Jersey Magazine about “The Public High School Report Card”

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Dear South Jersey Magazine,
On the cover of volume 12: issue 6, you trumpet that one of your stories is a “2015 Public High School Report Card [1].” With this letter, I ask that you reconsider how you represent public schools in your annual “Report Card” feature.

Your “Class is in Session: The Public High School Report Card” consists of a one-paragraph introduction and four data tables: Average SAT Score, Graduation Rate, A.P. Classes, and Student-to-Faculty Ratio (there’s also an accompanying article about PARCC testing). You declare in all caps, after your introduction, presumably to an audience of parents: “Here, then, are your study materials.”

When I initially read this line, I was furious. I distilled that rage into a draft of this letter, using words like “repellent,” “repulsive,” loathsome,” and “disgraceful.” But I don’t want to use those words. You are an advertising-supported magazine. You have simply pulled data from much bigger — and much more “official” — culprits in the ongoing public school misrepresentation campaign (in this case, the NJ Department of Education School Performance Reports [2]). You are certainly not the worst perpetrator, and my anger is not really directed at you. (Although my fury crested when I saw across from your charts an advertisement for Doane Academy, a private school. Advertising-supported or not, you showed a troubling opportunism in the placement of this ad.)

The charts, the way they are presented, do frustrate me. Again, I know you’re pulling from NJ Dept of Ed data, but, in 2015, no one can responsibly use SAT data without accompanying socioeconomic and other demographic information, including the number of children in a given school who take the SAT. Of course, you would know there is vast research identifying the racial and socioeconomic bias of the SAT and other standardized tests, so I needn’t delve into it here; simply search [SAT bias] in Google (if you’re feeling ambitious, use Google Scholar). If your feature also listed family income via a restaurant menu-like icon of dollar signs along with those SAT scores, you’d see a clear trend: Rich schools score better.

Your graduation rate chart might reveal a similar trend, and your A.P. chart would be more useful if balanced against school population numbers.

I ask that you think about how little your “Report Card” says about schools. Four data charts do not describe a school. They do not capture the life and spirit of that school and of the children, teachers, administrators, and families who make up that school’s community.

More importantly, these charts, except perhaps for student-faculty ratio, tell almost nothing about an individual student’s experience at a school. Your charts fuel the culture of misinformation in which people stubbornly and illogically equate a school’s overall SAT score as a statement about the school’s quality, the effort and commitment of its faculty, or the intellect of its students.

I know the people in and have walked the halls of some of the places at the bottom of your charts. Those schools are filled with caring faculty, creative administrators, and children — more on the children in a moment — who are doing more than just fine. Schools should not be branded like luxury items (a strategy the former president of George Washington University advocated, analogizing schools with vodka or watches [3]), but your feature encourages just that kind of thinking.

What is your goal, South Jersey Magazine? It can’t be to tell the story of South Jersey public schools. If so, you would recognize the disparities inherent in your data and, if you insist on using such charts, also provide qualitative information. You would seek out and profile, geez, just a few of the thousands of children who are succeeding and thriving in the schools at the bottom of your stark data charts.

You’re not to blame, South Jersey Magazine. But know that people inform important decisions, decisions about where they will live and learn, based on features like yours. Those decisions, in accumulation, have helped create and sustain the inequalities in education that persist throughout America.

Features like yours promise to “grade” schools. But, let’s be clear, instead they attack communities and, ultimately, the children of those communities. You are not the cause of divided schools. But do you want to participate in harming schools and communities? Do you want to participate in providing a flawed, narrow lens through which people squint and say, “I don’t want my kid there with those people”?

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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