Columbia HS Drops in NJ Monthly Ranking, Remains in Top 100

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NJ Monthly Top High Schools

NJ Monthly Top High Schools

Two years ago, when Columbia High School (CHS) broke into the top 50 in the New Jersey Monthly biennial rankings of the state’s best high schools, reaching 47th, it was cause for celebration among many in the South Orange – Maplewood community.

CHS had advanced steadily up in the ranking, rising from #89 in 2008 to #75 in 2010, and #47 in 2012.

This year, however, CHS dropped down to 96th out of the 339 schools reviewed. It is one of eight in Essex County in the top 100. (Millburn High School was ranked 5th. The top spot this year went to Chatham High School.)

The magazine takes into account factors including student/teacher ratio, student results on the SAT, HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment) and AP or IB tests, and graduation rates. The full list of the Top 100 public high schools is in the September issue of New Jersey Monthly, and a complete list of all 339 schools will be published Tuesday at www.njmonthly.com.

SOMSD’s acting superintendent Jim Memoli did not respond to requests for comment on the rankings. At the most recent meeting of the South Orange – Maplewood Board of Education, CHS Principal Elizabeth Aaron called the rankings “useful in some ways and not useful in others.”

Board member Jeff Bennett said in an email to HistoryNusantara that CHS dropped in the ratings in part because NJ Monthly stopped factoring in average class size after the Department of Education stopped releasing that data. Columbia’s class size is relatively small.

Columbia High School

Columbia High School

Also, student-to-faculty ratio increased somewhat while the graduation rate dipped, Bennett said. “The changes were small, but when so many top-ranked high schools have similar numbers a small change will have a big difference in a ranking.”

Columbia’s graduation rate is 90%, which is low when compared to other high schools in the top 100.

“There is a lot of progress happening at CHS in helping more students become college ready,” said Bennett. “We have been pushing more students to take AP courses and are slowly seeing progress in that area. Last year we saw a big jump in the percentage of students hitting the College Board’s college benchmark on the PSAT. If those strong scores hold on the SAT eventually it’ll boost CHS’ rankings.”

Bennett also noted the rankings do not account for demographics, and Columbia has more economically disadvantaged students than almost all of the schools ranked higher than it. Also, he said, the rankings do not “capture excellent teaching and curriculum.”

He continued, “We have excellent leadership in place, we are building new supports and opportunities, and are headed in the right direction.”

In his report on AP and HSPA scores to the BOE last week, chief information officer Paul Roth reported that the district has seen gains in some areas but not in others. For instance, while rates of Columbia students who take at least one AP test have slowly but steadily increased over the years by a few percentage points, fewer than 30% of all CHS students — and only 13% of black students — take an AP test.

By comparison, in Livingston (which ranked 16th this year) the percentage of all students who take at least one AP test is 33.5% and in Millburn it is 47%.

“While [the overall gains are] positive,” Roth said at the meeting, “there are still double digit gaps in participation rates between black and white students, so plenty of work still needs to be done.”

Roth reported there was an increase in student performance in the HSPA Language Arts test, with the achievement gap between black and white students narrowing by 16%. “There was a lot of success with language arts,” he said. However, math scores have remained flat since 2008.

Meanwhile, Inside Jersey, the NJ.com magazine, recently released its high school rankings, which uses three factors: a combined SAT score, a composite HSPA score and a combined arts participation score. New Jersey is the only state in the nation that tracks student participation in the arts.

CHS ranked 9th best overall in Essex County, but its arts participation score was very high at 70 percent — better than many neighboring districts including Livingston, Montclair and West Orange (and even topping Chatham).

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