When a Rose Isn't a Rose

New Jersey may have one of the nation's top high school graduation rates, but when it comes to college just 40.9 percent of residents hold an associates degree or higher. That puts New Jersey eighth in the country, according to the new College Board College Completion Agenda, and behind the national average of 41.6 percent. New Jersey's college completion stats are no better: of those seeking bachelor's degrees, 60.1 percent finish in six years, earning the Garden State a ranking of 13. More striking, just 13 percent of those seeking associates degrees in New Jersey are successful within three years, the second-lowest rate in the nation, ahead of only Delaware.
That’s NJ Spotlight’s “Number of the Day,” which points out some cognitive dissonance on the K-12 education scene in NJ. We have the highest high school graduation rate in the country (see here for NJEA’s cyber-cheer). We have the second-lowest rate of associate degree-completion in the country. What’s up with that?

At the Education Reform Now community forum in Newark on Saturday morning, Charlie Barone of Democrats for Education Reform spoke of some of these inequities visited upon school kids who go to public schools in cities like Newark. Lower graduation rates, greater reliance on alternative testing instead of traditional assessments, lower percentage of kids who begin college (38% in Newark vs. state average of 60%), lower participation in AP courses (21% of Newark high schools pass one AP test, while the state average is 70%, which tells you something about college-readiness).. Barone’s overview is that while NJ does a great job in early education, particularly our preschool programs, there’s a “huge divergence” once kids get to middle school and high school.

In other words, kids who attend a great NJ public school are adequately prepared for both our high school diploma qualifying exam (the HSPA) and for successful college completion. Those who aren’t adequately prepared either don’t graduate or find themselves in the heartbreaking situations (see earlier coverage here) of having been duped into thinking they were honor students but, instead, were unable to pass a middle-school level qualifying exam. Here’s E3’s Derrell Bradford in an editorial for The Press of Atlantic City:
[T]he State Board of Education ordered an examination of the course work of students who took the then SRA in 2009. Since 68 percent of SRA takers used it because they failed the math portion of the HSPA, one might imagine they had gaps in their course work. As the study found, however, the opposite was true. The Department of Education discovered that 90 percent of SRA users took, and apparently passed, Algebra I. A stunning 86 percent took and passed Geometry, while 71 percent and 91 percent took and passed Algebra II and Biology, respectively
As Charlie Barone pointed out, “there’s no accountability regarding what’s being taught” in chronically failing schools in places like Newark. Or, as Assemblywoman Mila Jasey said on Saturday morning, “you can’t hold children accountable for what they haven’t been taught.”

A course in Algebra I means one thing in Montclair or Moorestown and another thing entirely in Newark or Camden. It’s fine for the State to sign on to the national Common Core, which specifies course standards for language arts and math. It’s a whole other ball of wax to implement those standards across the state, regardless of local district, and to hold schools accountable for course content.

Our old alternative qualifying test, the Secondary Review Assessment, perpetuated the charade that Algebra I is Algebra I. The new alternative qualifying test, the Alternative High School Assessment, revealed that calling a course “Algebra I” is not in itself meaningful. Very post-modern of us, but without course content accountability our kids will continue to be unprepared for community college.

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