Wishful Thinking in the Garden State

by Lindsey Burke

The Washington Post’s Jay Matthews has called attention to a questionable study on the graduation rates of minority students in Newark, N.J. The report, Yes We Can: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males, claims that New Jersey is successfully closing the achievement gap between white and minority male students.

Published by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, the report estimates that the graduation rate for black male students in Newark stands at 75 percent. (Nationally, the graduation rate for all students stands at about 73 percent.)  

So, do Newark residents have reason to celebrate? Not quite.

In New Jersey, students have as many as three chances to pass the state high-school exit exam. That’s right — three. Three chances to earn a passing grade of 50 percent on a test that is written at the middle-school level. Students have three chances to score 50 percent or better on a middle-school-level test in order to graduate high school.

But students who are unable to reach even that hurdle are given yet another opportunity to get a diploma. They can take the Special Review Assessment (SRA), an alternative test administered to high-school students who fail the state exit exam, and 39 percent of Newark students took the SRA in the study year.

But the N.J. Department of Education recently audited the SRA exam and found that an astonishingly high percentage of students who had to take the SRA exam had taken and ostensibly passed their core high-school courses: 86 percent of students taking the SRA had passed Geometry; 90 percent had passed Algebra I; 91 percent had passed high-school biology.

Derrell Bradford, executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3) in New Jersey notes:

We have argued that New Jersey has two education systems. One you attend if you are white and live in an affluent suburb, and one you attend if you are poor, minority, and live in a city. The DOE report frames this differently. There is one system you attend where the classes are what they say they are, the teachers understand the subject, and students actually pass the classes.

And there is one — typified by urban high schools that abuse the SRA — where the name of a course is just ‘a name.’ Where, as Assistant Commissioner Jay Doolan describes, schools can ‘call a course anything they want.’ One where students ‘take’ and ‘pass’ college prep classes despite having learned nothing. And one where a teacher-quality vacuum likely staffs these classes with adults who know little more than the students.

In this second system, not only is a high-school diploma not a reliable predictor of having attained appropriate skills; high school itself is not a predictor of high-school skills. Just like the supposed college prep classes these students take, these schools and their diplomas are as such in name only.

These sad truths are only compounded by the fact that Newark spends $22,000 per child in the public-school system. And while Mr. Schott is quick to correlate and credit the exorbitant amount of “resources” funneled into Newark public education with its “graduation” rate, the evidence indicates that the Newark diploma mill is doing little to actually increase academic achievement.

By contrast, states like Florida, which have very rigorous academic standards, have genuinely begun to narrow the achievement gap between white and minority students. Florida gives performance pay bonuses to teachers who increase the number of students who take and pass Advanced Placement classes (no watering-down permitted), and has seen the percentage of minority students taking and passing AP exams in Florida increase substantially. As Matthew Ladner and I have detailed before, Florida’s success at narrowing the achievement gap is evident.

Under the leadership of Gov. Chris Christie, New Jersey certainly has a shot at turning things around. One of the most important steps in the Florida educational revolution was standing up to the teachers’ unions, which Christie has not shied away from. Breaking the union stranglehold in the Garden State and moving toward a more choice-oriented system will certainly give New Jersey students a chance to show true academic gains.

Lindsey M. Burke is a policy analyst in domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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