Michael Barone once observed that “one of my longtime rules in politics is that all procedural arguments are insincere, including this one.” He might have included the Education Law Center’s recent gambit in his catalogue of disingenuity. In this case the advocacy group filed a lawsuit against the New Jersey Department of Education for a “failure to comply with the statutory and regulatory requirements governing the issuance of State-endorsed high school diplomas and the failure to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act NJS.A. 52:14B-1 et seq..”
Translation: The DOE. didn’t follow proper procedure when it replaced New Jersey’s old high school diploma qualifying test, called the HSPA, with the new test, called the PARCC. Straightforward, right? Or, per Barone’s dictum, not so much. All procedure, no substance; all shadow, no light.
We’re all better served, especially schoolchildren, if adults are sincere, substantive, and straightforward. So here we go: ELC.’s discomfort with PARCC, shared by its allies NJEA and Save Our Schools-NJ, has nothing to do with bureaucratic minutiae and everything with preserving the pretense that NJ’s public schools are fine. A bulwark for this artifice has been high passing rates on HSPA tests among suburban high school juniors and seniors, despite former NJ Education Commissioner Lucille Davy’s admission years ago that the assessment is a “middle school-level test.”
PARCC, on the other hand, is aligned with this-century course standards that students need to succeed in college and careers. Last year’s results, in which fewer than half of our students scored high enough to meet proficiency levels in math and reading, upends that pretense.
Where do we go from here? It seems to me that we have two choices: one, blame the messenger in order to maintain the pretense or, two, heed the message by raising expectations for all children by maintaining our commitment to grade-appropriate standards and assessments.
Anyway, we’ve been here before. Ten years ago the ELC and NJEA launched a marketing campaign to maintain a high school diploma loophole called the Special Review Assessment (SRA). Originally intended for a tiny percentage of students who, because of special needs or extraordinary circumstances, failed the HSPA three times, the SRA gradually evolved into the predominant diploma qualification test for students of color in high-needs districts.
In 2009, for example, 62.8 percent of students in Camden City graduated by taking the SRA, which was impossible to fail. It was discontinued in 2010 after a series recommendations from educational experts, as well as embarrassing media reports like this one from the Asbury Park Press: “With the SRA, schools are saying to the most vulnerable students, ‘We can’t give you the skills you need, but here’s a piece of paper saying we did.’”
Our current imbroglio over PARCC is deja vu all over again, with one difference: the elimination of SRA primarily affected poor high school students of color in Abbott districts who couldn’t pass an 8th-grade level test. But the elimination of HSPA affects middle- and upper-class students as well, many of them white, and that’s simply unacceptable to a state that prides itself on its great suburban public schools.
And PARCC scores are not the only indicator of NJ’s failure (one shared by most other states) to adequately prepare schoolchildren for college and careers. Just this week, for example, the New York Times Editorial Board referenced a report called “The High Cost of Inadequate High Schools and High School Student Achievement on College Affordability” and reported that “nearly half of the students who begin their college careers taking remedial courses come from middle- and upper-income families. Not only do remedial courses add more than $1 billion each year to students’ bills for tuition, but students who start out in these classes take longer to graduate and are far more likely to drop out.”
With all due respect, the Gray Lady is playing catch-up. Three years ago the NJ DOE College Readiness Task Force reported that 91 percent of first-time full-time freshman at Bergen Community College had to take non-credit remedial courses in reading, math, or both. Among NJ’s four-year colleges, 32.3 percent of first-time full-time freshman at Rutgers University, NJ’s flagship of higher education, spent valuable time and took out loans to cover remedial courses on material that they were supposed to learn in high school.
And those not on the “college-level track”? Among recent NJ high school graduates, says the DOE. report, “only half … could pass eighth grade mathematics aptitude tests, which are the gateways to entry-level jobs.”
We can’t give you the skills you need but here’s a piece of paper that says we did.
Of course, nothing in education is simple. Social promotion has its place (some data indicates that even a meaningless diploma is better than none) and children come to school with various burdens of disability and disadvantage. We should have more than one pathway to a diploma and no one is suggesting otherwise.. But our disappointing PARCC scores are real, not a result of administrative missteps. And the corollary to those scores is our college remediation rates. Both indicate the failure of our schools to adequately educate our children, poor and rich, urban and suburban, in a new era that requires higher levels of proficiency.
Where do we go from here? Hearing the messenger and holding off on litigious gunfire is a first step. The next is standing strong on school, district, and state accountability. (Imagine if schools or the state had to pay for remedial coursework?) Above all, let’s keep the focus off administrative trivia and on children and their future prospects. Our kids deserve more than a piece of paper.