Best high schools in NJ is a highly subjective topic. But it is a top search criteria for home buyers who generally have a sense about the reputation of a town’s school system from friends, family and articles before ever setting foot in it. In fact, in the last decade school rankings (top high schools) and a town’s proximity to the NYC Midtown Direct train line (easy access) have been the driving force behind property values in New Jersey.
While a town’s commutability is indisputable, school rankings are highly subjective and can vary greatly. Yet, these rankings have become synonymous with home sale prices. Buyers are so concerned about the quality of their child’s education they are willing to buy a much smaller house in an inferior location for more money- just to ensure their kids get a leg up.
How Do You Define the Best High School in NJ?
Almost every buyer I work with uses the bi annual cover story “Best High Schools” produced by NJ Monthly magazine as a guide for choosing which town they will buy in. And those of us who live in the area hold our breath until we see where our schools rank and therefor our homes’ potential value.
Personally, I always found trying to define top high schools somewhat irrelevant. And I always found NJ Monthly’s ranking methodology somewhat deficient because it measures a school’s achievements in only one dimension. In their research the term “college preparedness” is the key criteria for determining a school’s rank. And while this is a very important barometer, it does not draw a complete picture. Not all kids go to college. What about the kids in the middle, or at the bottom? Don’t their achievements count? So I couldn’t be happier with the new “Best High Schools” list published by US News & World Reports.
US News factors in many more criteria like a student’s overall proficiency compared to the average, plus, “whether the school’s least-advantaged students (black, Hispanic and low-income) were performing better than average for similar students in the state.”
In addition, they “compared each school’s math and reading proficiency rates for disadvantaged students with the statewide results for these student groups and then selected schools that were performing better than the state average.”
Adding these criteria to the mix is critical since schools deserve as much credit (or more) for educating disadvantaged kids who need a quality education as much, or more than kids in more affluent and less diverse communities. It’s a far more comprehensive methodology, and creates a more level playing field for all schools. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that US News’ rankings drastically differ from NJ Monthly’s. See a comparison of both sources below.
It is unfair to conclude that the “top” schools are top simply because they have better curriculums or their teachers are so much more amazing. Without factoring in the demographics of the student body, the results were skewed to advantage schools in affluent and super affluent communities. In reality, these reports really just showed the correlation between affluence and school test results.
The real question is; are the disadvantaged kids becoming more proficient over time? By digging deeper US News’ top schools list reflects a more accurate picture – especially for schools like Columbia High School which has a very diverse student body. With the more savvy research measurement employed by US News & World Reports, Columbia’s ranking is much higher than it is on the NJ Monthly list (i.e. going from # 50 to #36) . As a resident of South Orange for 17 years I always knew my children were receiving an excellent education.
But, potential home buyers who I know would enjoy living in South Orange/Maplewood always raise concerns about the high school. This one article by NJ Monthly has had a profound impact on the town’s home values, and I am so happy it is finally being challenged by a top news source. I know first hand Columbia’s seniors always get in to top colleges. After all, one of mine did. What wasn’t being measured and properly factored into the equation, was the socio-economic diversity of its student body. So each time they put out the article the kids who are in lower levels dragged down the school’s overall ranking. To see the full report by US News click here.
US News uses a fairer, more accurate methodology that measures how these kids, are improving their proficiency vis-a-vis the state and national proficiency exams year over year. And Columbia’s students – at ALL levels are making great strides. Congratulations to the hard working administration and teachers in the district for finally receiving the recognition they so justly deserve… and let’s hope the housing prices reflect it.