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NJ Spotlight Roundtable: NJ Schools Aren’t Making the Grade

Forum participants tackle problem of graduates ill-prepared for college, work force.

The problem facing Jersey’s high schools was easier to agree upon. Agreeing on a solution was more elusive.

Top educators and advocates met Friday as part of NJ Spotlight’s Roundtable Series to discuss the growing consensus that high schools in New Jersey – if not nationwide – are not adequately preparing all students for college and careers.

Even in higher performing suburban schools, business leaders see too many students without the necessary skills.

One of the panel members was Jeffrey Scheininger, board chairman for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and owner of a small tubing manufacturer in Linden.

“Let me tell what has happened the last couple of years as my initial work force has moved into retirement,” Sheininger said.

“I ran an ad for an entry level manufacturing position,” he said. “Of 100 applicants who were self-described as high school graduates, two were able to pass an elementary arithmetic test…They couldn’t read a ruler. It was stunning.”

But during the forum discussion held before about 100 people at the Masonic Temple in Trenton, the trickier topic was what to do about it.

For much of the last two decades, a push has been under way to raise standards and impose new tests that would place higher expectations on schools and students.

The latest example is the nationally-developed Common Core State Standards, which New Jersey has joined, along with new online assessments that elementary school and high school students will need to pass.

Earlier this year, a task force of educators and others appointed by Gov. Chris Christie proposed that New Jersey adopt the Common Core and a series of new subject tests for high school students developed by a national consortium known as Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. (PARCC).

The PARCC tests would be phased in over the next several years, with this year’s fifth-graders likely to be the first to take the full battery of tests in high school. The task force stopped short of specifying how many of the tests should be required for graduation.

On Friday, state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said the testing would provide a valuable measure of college and career readiness that isn’t measured accurately by the state’s High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA). The HSPA testing in language arts and math is given in 11th grade, with two chances for retesting and an alternative test for those who still do not pass.

“We are graduating children in high schools by pretty high rates, about 83 percent by new federal standards, and all have passed certain requirements and the HSPA in particular,” he said.

“The problem is a very material percentage of them, notwithstanding they have completed requirements of graduation, are in fact not college- and career-ready. Something like 90 percent of students at Bergen Community or Essex Community need remediation and not ready to take college-level courses.”

Also on the panel was Raritan Valley Community College President Casey Crabill, who said the high remediation rates were only hurting the students themselves.

“They are ill-prepared, and they don’t know it,” Crabill said. “You spend about six months in remedial education trying to convince them that this really will help. For many of them, it is discouraging. They come to us because they want to study automotive tech, but they don't have the skills to read the textbook.”

For some of the educators on the panel, the question was not whether change was needed but how to do it, how quickly, and with what resources.

Gemar Mills, principal of Shabazz High School in Newark, said he concurs with the report and many of its proposals. But he worried that his students are struggling enough in meeting the current standards, if they even get through school at all.

“Potentially it will get worse,” he said. “From my perspective as principal of my school, we have already not mastered what most are considering low-rigor testing.”

Peter Renwick, principal of Westfield High School and also a member of the task force, said it was less of a concern in his district, where nearly every student graduates and virtually all go on to college.

But, even so, he said there are a host of initiatives coming down on schools with changes in tenure laws, new accountability measures and strained state funding. He likened it to a “perfect storm,” although not necessarily in a bad way.

“So many things are happening right now that are hard to keep up with and hard to manage and hard to fully understand,” he said. “The way I look at it is maybe things are coming into alignment. Change is hard, but change is needed in this situations.”

Stan Karp, a program director with the Education Law Center in Newark who has been among the most vocal critics of the administration’s proposals, said he did not disagree with everything in the task force report.

“Absolutely important we get more kids through high school and keep high graduation rates and prepare kids for success in life,” he said. “The test of whether we do this well is whether drop-out rates increase dramatically. We have more than 100,000 kids between 18 and 24 years of age who are not in school or in college, and do we need to push more kids out of school without diplomas?”

He said the last 10 years of standards and assessments under the federal No Child Left Behind Act have only showed those limitations, driving up high school dropout numbers in many cities.

Cerf conceded at one point that throughout the national push for new standards and expectations, the quality of testing has not always kept pace. But he said the state has seven years to roll out the new testing, with high stakes to match, and he called anti-testing criticism a “straw man.”

“Nobody is saying that the answer to our education system is that we need to have more tests,” he said. “Nobody thinks that, nobody think they are a silver bullet. But certainly they are one weapon in the arsenal.

He said the current tests are a poor starting point: “These tests are deeply flawed and they are about to get a heck of a lot better.”

He said passing at least a majority of the new tests would be required for graduation, and that the administration’s current plan is to also require a science and social studies exam that either the state will develop or districts will be able to develop with the state’s approval.

Also in attendance were students from both Shabazz and Westfield high schools, each offering the perspectives of their peers to the notion of new and more rigorous testing.

The four students were Jennifer Mandelblatt and Ben Schwartz from Westfield, and MaLisa Winborne and Sakieya Anderson from Shabazz. The students generally agreed with the need for raising expectations for schools and students, be it in Westfield or Newark, but also said it wasn’t just a matter of giving a harder test.

Winborne, a 17-year-old senior and class salutatorian at Shabazz, said she worried it would only discourage students already struggling to pass the existing tests and additional supports were required. Anderson said those supports need to start in the youngest grades.

From Westfield, Mandelblatt said the Advanced Placement tests were a good model where students are taught over the course of the year specific knowledge and skills tested on the exam, with constant feedback from their teacher.

The 17-year-old senior agreed that the high school diploma needs to mean something, not just for colleges and employers but for the students themselves.

“In the end, I want to walk graduation with all my peers, but we shouldn’t be a mere statistic,” Mandelblatt said. “I have confidence in my abilities to pursue higher education and a career because of the opportunities I’ve had at Westfield High School.

“But we need to put back significance on the diploma, and there needs to be confidence in ourselves that we can pursue our future plans and not just pass a single test.”

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