NJ High-School Graduation Rate Rises Slightly Once Again

Interpreting numbers may soon prove problematic amid looming changes in criteria for earning diploma

mortarboard graduation
New Jersey’s high-school graduation rate, already one of the highest in the nation, crept up a little for the Class of 2013.

It was encouraging news, but its meaning may soon be open to different interpretations, as the rules change for counting and testing graduates.

A total of 95,000 high-school seniors graduated last summer, representing more than 87.5 percent of the 108,000 who had started high school four years earlier, according to breakdowns released yesterday by the Christie administration.

That was a slight increase from the 86.5 percent of the prior year, prompting plaudits at the State Board of Education meeting where the results were presented.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of graduation numbers for every high school and district in the state.

Graduation rates have turned out to be a work in progress for the administration and a moving target for the state, as the methodology has changed in the last two years in a federally-mandated effort to standardize the count.

The latest counts follow a cohort of students through high school to measure those who started against those who finished.

The bigger changes may come in the years ahead, as New Jersey is among dozens of states changing their high school testing to align them with the Common Core State Standards and the state decides how – or if — it will require passing the tests in order to earn a diploma.

The state Department of Education’s policy director, Justin Barra, said yesterday that the numbers were mostly pointing in the right direction for now. Gaps remained wide between different income and ethnic groups, with the graduation rate dropping to as low as 70 percent for limited-English students and 76 percent for African-American students.

But Barra said those subgroups are also showing improvements.

“That is encouraging, as it means it is happening across all populations,” Barra told the state board.

Barra also warned against drawing too many quick conclusions from the numbers.

The graduation rate jumped considerably in 2012, but he said that that may have been because school districts were getting used to the new way of counting graduates.

Conversely, the graduation rate dropped last year for limited-English students, but he said that statistic, too, might also be more about how the numbers were compiled in these first years.

“We think it is more a data collection issue than there being actually fewer graduates,” Barra said.

Barra also presented the latest data on the students who haven’t passed the state’s current High School Proficiency Assessment, and instead need to take the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA) or file last-resort appeals based on a review of other measures of achievement.

Last year, 10 percent of students needed either the alternative tests or the appeals process to graduate – amounting to roughly 10,000 students. Of those students, nearly 1,600 filed appeals, the vast majority because they failed the math sections of the graduation tests.

State board members questioned the disparity in the math numbers, with the appeals for math nearly three times the rate of appeals for failing marks in language arts. Barra said it was not surprising, given that the state’s language arts scores have historically been higher than those in math.

The Christie administration has yet to decide how and if an appeals process will be part of the next version of the state’s high school testing, slated to start next year.

Passing the new testing in 9th, 10th, and 11th grades in both math and language arts will not be required for graduation for the first three years, but is expected to ultimately be a requirement for a diploma, at least in some form, according to officials.