High school graduation season is in full swing across the Garden State. Students are donning caps and gowns to collect their high school diplomas while parents, educators, and community leaders stand in ceremony to celebrate student accomplishments.
In many areas of the state, we have a lot to celebrate. New Jersey’s graduation rate continues to rise each year, outpacing the nation. But before we get too carried away with pomp and circumstance, we must take a closer look at what graduation signifies for students leaving our public schools. Are they entering college or work prepared for their next steps in joining our innovation economy? Does a New Jersey high school diploma in fact signal readiness for a successful future?
JerseyCAN’s latest report, The Real Test: Are We Committed to Excellence and Equity in Education? shares significant evidence that, at a time when so many other states are retreating from more rigorous academic standards and assessments, New Jersey has remained committed to the promise that all students can succeed at high levels. Unlike those states that have watered down content standards and weakened or eliminated measures of student progress, we have maintained consistent goalposts for students and educators over the past four years.
And what a story we have to tell about this commitment to equity and excellence.
Big improvements have been made
New Jersey students have shown significant improvements in English Language Arts (ELA) and math across the grade levels since we adopted higher expectations for student learning and implemented a more challenging exam. And these figures are more than just percentages. The numbers represent tens of thousands more students reading and doing math on grade level in just four years.
None of this has happened by accident. For several decades, our education and business community leaders have come together with teachers and administrators, parents and students, and other stakeholders to collaborate on a shared vision for the future. Together, we’ve agreed that our students and educators are among the best in the nation and are capable of achieving to the highest expectations. We’ve made some positive changes to the standards and tests in recent years in response to feedback from educators, students, and families, but we’ve kept the bar high and our commitment strong to measuring student progress toward meeting that bar.
A New Jersey high school diploma is indeed becoming more meaningful, as evidenced by the academic gains we’ve see year over year and the increase in students meeting proficiency in subjects like ELA 10 and Algebra I. Our state is leading the nation in closing ELA achievement gaps for African American and Hispanic students since 2015.
Facing uncomfortable questions
And yet, for as many positive trends as the data show, we still have far to go, and troubling equity gaps remain. Across the state, we still see 30 percent to over 50 percent of students achieving below expectations, depending on subject and grade level.
Figure 8 from the report forces us to face uncomfortable questions, especially within districts that hold some of our most traditionally underserved students. How can 70 percent to 85 percent of students graduate from high school when only 10 percent to 30 percent of those same students are meeting academic expectations or college and career benchmarks in reading and math? What does a New Jersey high school diploma mean for those students?
The ability to ask, and eventually answer, tough questions like these is the reason why we need many forms of information about student progress. And while we can and should celebrate New Jersey’s status as a leading state for many students, the real test before us is whether we remain committed to becoming the leading state for all our students.
On the right track
At JerseyCAN, we believe that we are on the right track. Even in schools and districts where major gaps exist, we are equipped with more data than ever before to inform decisions about how to better support the educators and students who need it most. Rather than moving the goalposts for struggling schools, we should be using data to identify schools that are making the most growth and examining and sharing their strategies across the state.
The Real Test is not about the politics that plague discussions of what and why we test. Rather, it uses objective data to show how New Jersey is seeing remarkable momentum thanks to the bipartisan path we’ve taken to arrive at our current system and the hard work of educators, students, and families every day. The report does not hold state tests up as the only, or even the most important, measure to consider when examining student and school progress. Instead, it celebrates the accomplishments we’ve seen to date and reminds us why multiple forms of data are so important.
We are eager to be part of the conversation about the next generation of assessments in New Jersey, as we can always make improvements. However, this must be a conversation based on evidence and rooted in our shared investment in the future of our students and our state. Then we adults can all applaud as the graduation caps are tossed to the sky, knowing all students’ dreams can reach just as high.