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Opinion: NJ's High School Diplomas - Worth the Paper They're Printed On?

As state high-school graduation rates continue to climb, we need to assess if we're doing our grads a grave disservice

laura waters
Laura Waters

Last month, New Jersey's new acting Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet described the state's sixth year in a row of increased high school graduation rates - now 90.5 percent - as "exciting," because it "demonstrates we are on a path toward closing our achievement gaps and achieving excellent and equitable educational opportunities for our children."

Mr. Repollet is both right and wrong.

New Jersey is on the right track, largely due to what our schools are teaching and how they're testing students, changes implemented by (hold the rotten tomatoes, please) the Christie administration's Department of Education. Indeed, the percentage of children who master grade-level content is increasing each year as measured by PARCC tests, (which are highly rated by educators for quality, accessibility, and accuracy). In just the past two years, we've seen a 7.3 percent increase in Language Arts proficiency and a 4.9 increase in math proficiency. And our honesty gap - how easily parents can ascertain accurate information about school quality - is no longer the gaping abyss it once was, due to new school performance reports and heroic efforts by our DOE to insert teeth into the gummy federal education law called ESSA.

However, gauging the reliability of our educational compass by tracking high school graduation rates is a fool's errand. With all due respect to commissioner Repollet, this particular metric demonstrates little about academic excellence, equity, and achievement gaps. The question - one that has dogged NJ for decades - is whether we should continue our tradition of circumventing accountability by awarding diplomas to students who haven't mastered the content necessary to go to college or pursue a career.

Gaming the requirements

New Jersey has a long history of gaming diploma requirements. A recent example is the "Special Review Assessment" or SRA. Originally, this "alternative pathway" to a diploma was intended for special-education students and English Language Learners. Over time it metamorphosed into a separate graduation system for students who had been poorly served by their districts and, thus, failed the basic-skills High School Proficiency Assessment (our pre-PARCC test) three times. These students then would sit one-on-one with a teacher who would coach them on content and give them a quiz. Wrong answer? Try again. And again. The SRA was impossible to fail.

Given our ZIP-code-based district boundaries (Connor Williams notes policies that "allow the wealthy to purchase segregated, privileged schools through the real estate market"), SRA students were primarily black, hispanic, and low income. In 2009, 53 percent of Camden High School students received diplomas through these sham tests. Four years earlier, then-Commissioner of Education William Librera concluded that the test "raises disturbing questions and conclusions about the ability of a large portion of our students to learn and to master important content … The SRA hurts the very students we seek to help, and it must be replaced."

Meaningless diplomas

Librera's concerns about handing out meaningless diplomas have been echoed by other educational leaders like former Newark Superintendent Clifford Janey who said the Special Review Assessment "has morphed into a culture of low expectations." Even after the state eliminated the test, Chris Cerf noted the "travesty that so many students graduate from high school, have the diploma in hand and when they go on to the next phase of life, college in particular, they need to take remedial courses."

Of course, these issues are complicated. After the SRA was finally eliminated and replaced with a more accountable test called the AHSA, Beyonka Walden-Utley, a mother in Camden whose son failed the test, told the Courier-Post: "My heart is crushed right now just because he worked hard to reach this point. Please understand, I don't want him given anything he did not earn. But at the same token, I don't want him to not to have the same opportunities all the other children had prior to him to achieve this goal."

In fact, the Education Law Center issued a report called "New Jersey's Special Review Assessment: Loophole or Lifeline?" (spoiler alert: ELC says it's a lifeline) in a last-ditch effort to save the SRA, in part because "for the recipient, the SRA is a saving grace, it's about building self-esteem." A teacher cited in the report explains:

"A kid arrives from a mediocre school in the 9th grade - he can't be sent directly to Algebra 1. He needs a year, takes geometry. Then he fails HSPA [our former diploma-qualifying test, now replaced by English 10 and Algebra 1 PARCC assessments]. Summer school can't do it in six weeks. We're going to tell him he doesn't deserve a diploma?"

The disagreement about whether high school diplomas certify learning or seat time continues to play out on the national stage. One example: a recent probe revealed that, in an effort to inflate graduation rates, one in three graduates of DC high schools "received their diplomas in violation of city policy." Do we punish students who, through no fault of their own, are relegated to "mediocre" schools? Of course not. But then how do we claim that high school graduation signifies anything of import?

Ending home rule

One answer would be to overturn NJ's allegiance to home rule and unlock the gates of higher-performing districts to students ZIP coded into lousy schools. Another would be to mandate that our segregated magnet schools (run by county vo-techs) reflect the demographics of entire counties. Another would be to expand high-performing charter schools, an inverse of the Murphy administration's call for a "pause" on expansion of opportunities. Another would be to differentiate diplomas, much like New York State, which has a dozen that range from "Advanced Designation with Honors" for high-achievers to "Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential" for students who, well, just show up.

If history is any guide, political and cultural resistance would doom any of these possibilities. (Paula White, who had a one-day tenure as assistant commissioner because the NJEA cowed Gov. Phil Murphy into rescinding her appointment, might have been able to help.) All I know is that we shouldn't hand out high school diplomas like participation trophies at tee-ball games. Commissioner Repollet knows - he must - that claiming New Jersey's educational opportunities are "excellent and equitable" or that graduation rates are "exciting" merely maintains a pretense that serves students and families poorly. We can do better than this.

Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for NJ Left Behind, New York School Talk, Education Post, and other publications. She was a school board member in Lawrence Township (Mercer County) for 12 years and served nine years as president.

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