ANALYSIS: Here’s What’s Wrong With U.S. News and World Report’s Top New Jersey High Schools List

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U.S. News and World Report just published its rankings of the top high schools in each state Below is a list of NJ’s top 20, but first a few caveats.

Why? Because if you didn’t know better, you’d think these ratings were an accurate representation of New Jersey’s best schools. But they’re not. While U.S. News rankings have a special category for magnets –schools where admission requires high grades, test scores, and teacher recommendations—the publication has mistaken our “county vo-tech” schools for what it calls “traditional” schools. No shade on U.S. News: New Jersey does a pretty good job of playing down the nature of these bastions of privilege.

Now, most of our 21 county school districts (one for each of our 21 counties) do indeed offer courses and certifications in  horticulture, cosmetology, and auto repair (as well as programs for students with disabilities). But quite a few of our vocational-technical campuses also house highly-selective schools that offer amenities like “3-D printers, robotics equipment and tens of thousands of dollars in high-tech machinery for its engineering students to play with.”

For example, let’s look at what U.S. News considers NJ’s top “traditional” high school, Middlesex County Academy for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Technologies. According to the NJ Department of Education database, 92.5% of students are Asian or white, 6% are Hispanic, and 0.9% are Black. Fewer than one percent of students have disabilities and 2.7% are economically-disadvantaged. Here’s a description of the school’s admissions process:

All prospective students must pass a rigorous admissions procedure, including a three-hour standardized test consisting of math and language arts sections and an interview. Prospective students are then ranked, and the highest qualifying score from each municipality is given the slot reserved for that community (each municipality in the Middlesex County has a single slot reserved for it, provided that it has at least one student with a qualifying score). The remaining students are then ranked in order, and the highest scoring students are selected. There are 42 slots available in each incoming freshman class, resulting in an average 9% acceptance rate.

For context, Middlesex County Academy for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Technologies is located in Edison, NJ.  At Edison High School –the actual “traditional” high school in the district that must accept everyone in its catchment area—62% of students are Asian or white, 21% are Hispanic, and 14% are Black. Twelve percent of students have disabilities and 31.5% are economically-disadvantaged.

Think about it: Middlesex Academy has fewer than 1% of students with disabilities compared with Edison High School’s 12%; MIddlesex has 2.7% low-income students compared with Edison High’s 31%; Middlesex has fewer than 1 percent Black students compared to Edison High’s 14%. The two schools are 2.4 miles away from each other.

The third school on U.S. News’ list is Bergen County Academies (BAC in photo above) in Hackensack. If you want to increase your odds of admission within its “extremely competitive applicant pools” you can pay for this 9-week prep course “designed for students who wish to apply to private and magnet schools and aspire for a higher level of education” and marketed for aspiring BAC students. Or just buy this book calledThe Get Ready for the Bergen Academies Admission Test,” now in paperback.

Among the current class at Bergen Academies, 6.6% are economically-disadvantaged and 1% are eligible for special education services. Two percent are Black and 7 percent are Hispanic; everyone else is white or Asian. Hackensack High School is the closest public high school to Bergen Academies. There, 29 percent of students are black, 22.9 percent are white, 43.6 percent are Hispanic, and 42% are economically-disadvantaged.

(So why isn’t Education Law Center suing these elitist money-sucking mongrels in court right now instead of  inclusive, thrifty public charter schools? Because county magnet schools are school-choice Teflon. ELC and its funder NJEA have no beef with them: they’re unionized [charters only unionize if 50% of teachers want to join NJEA] and, thus, no threat to district school market share. Puzzle solved.)

A few other notes: Two of the schools listed below are in Jersey City, Ronald McNair and Infinity Institute. The latter describes itself as “the only secondary, magnet school within the Jersey City Public Schools district that serves grades six through twelve and concentrates on academics in a personalized, challenging environment.” Students applying for admission submit PSAT scores, report cards, and teacher recommendations. They are also rated on attendance and extracurricular activities. McNair is similarly restrictive but it starts in 9th grade, not 6th.. Science Park High School and Elizabeth High School. are also magnet schools. Four non-magnets made it into the top 20 list: Glen Ridge, Millburn, Livingston, and West-Windsor Plainsboro. They’re all segregated too, largely Asian, white, and wealthy.  In that sense they constitute their own form of magnets: you get through the gates by your ability to pay sky-high property taxes and housing costs, not through prep courses.

Here’s NJ’s top 20 public high schools. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking they’re “traditional.”

1. Middlesex County Academy for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Technologies in Edison (ranked #27 in the country!)

2. High Technology High School in Lincroft (ranked #53 in the country!)

3. Bergen County Academies in Hackensack (#54)

4. Middlesex County Academy for Allied Health in Woodbridge

5. Dr. Ronald E McNair High School in Jersey City

6. Union County Magnet High School in Scotch Plains

7. Biotechnology High School in Freehold

8. Bergen County Technical High School  in Teterboro

9. Academy for Information Technology in Scotch Plains

10. Academy for Allied Health Sciences in Scotch Plains

11. Infinity Institute in Jersey City

12. Marine Academy of Science and Technology in Highlands

13. Elizabeth High School in Elizabeth

14. Glen Ridge High School in Glen Ridge

15. Millburn High School in Millburn

16. Livingston High School in Livingston

17. Summit Senior High School in Summit

18. West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North in Plainsboro

19. Academy of Allied Health and Science in Neptune

20. Science Park High School in Newark




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