What Colleges and Business Think NJ High School Graduates Need

In NJ Spotlight roundtable, college and business leaders detail what they see as the important skills for those preparing for further studies and careers

mortarboard graduation
From the birth of the movement for education standards and testing in the 1980s and 1990s, the obvious question has always come back to what exactly students should know and be able to do to succeed beyond high school.

Needless to say, that has proved to be a moving target.

The question now has returned to the fore as New Jersey decides its next steps in determining what it wants to require for high school graduation and, just as critically, how to measure for that — whether with exit tests or some other calculation.

NJ Spotlight has sought to advance the discussion with its “Defining the Diploma” series of roundtable discussions, which are planned to run through the end of the year; the latest was held last week.

The first roundtable in March included state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet in a conversation with three high school principals giving the view from inside their schools. Repollet, a former Carteret High School principal himself, and the principals focused on critical thinking and teamwork skills as the new must-haves of the 21st century.

Last Tuesday, the second roundtable in the series focused on the perspective of colleges and businesses. And while harder skills were also at the forefront, the gathering of higher education and business leaders underlined the changing needs in their fields as well.

The following are excerpts from the discussion, which was moderated by NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney.

National context

John Mooney: Where are we in the standards movement nationally right now?

Mike Cohen, president of Achieve Inc.
Mike Cohen, president of Achieve Inc., a Washington-based advocacy organization that has played a leading role in the standards movement: Well, it’s a pretty complicated picture. A couple of things — one is politics reared its head again, partly over federal involvement issues, partly over the federal push to require the tests be used for teacher evaluation. That turned out to be a bad idea. At a minimum, it was too much too soon and not at all clear the best way to proceed. But as you all know, that engendered a fair amount of pushback on the standards and the tests all rolled in together.

Mooney: Bad idea or bad politics?

Cohen: I was all on board for using those tests for measures of student achievement. Using it for teachers was a different matter. [It was] harder to design tests for those purposes, not so smart to rush that aspect of accountability when we all knew the field was not where it needed to be.

To be college and career-ready, it requires a blend of academic skills, for sure, professional and technical skills that pay off in careers, and social-emotional skills. That has to be packaged together. What are the ways this could be blended in a more coherent way?

Mooney: How do you standardize social and emotional skills?

Cohen: I’m not sure you do. I would not start out by figuring out what does a standardize skills test looks like. I’d look for other ways to find measures for it.

New Jersey’s standing and ‘opportunity’

Mooney: How does New Jersey compare to other states in this debate?

Cohen: When I look at the evidence of academic performance in New Jersey, you have made quite a few gains in the last four or five years. I know PARCC is not popular, but when you look at the trends on that, the gains are pretty impressive compared to other states across the country. You should take a little time to reflect on all that you have accomplished, particularly in difficult times.

On the testing, I get there is a lot of debate about what grades we should test and in what subjects. Is it an exit exam, is it not an exit exam? A lot of states are having that debate, and what is often missing is exactly what is the point of those tests, what is the purpose of them. Absent that question, who cares if it’s a 9th grader taking the tests or a 12th grader?

I would urge you all to find a way to step back and have a conversation about what is the purpose of the tests, particularly at the high school level. What do we want those results to mean for the students who take it?

Linda Eno, NJ assistant education commissioner
Linda Eno, New Jersey assistant commissioner of education: This is a conversation that is happening across the state right now. What does it mean to be college- and career-ready, what does the diploma stand for?

The workplace is changing, the student demographics are changing. We have an opportunity to rethink high school here in New Jersey. We have made great strides on making sure students are college-ready, but I think we need to get a little better balance of both college- and career-ready. They need that blended set of skills.

Remedial education

Aaron Fichtner, president of NJ Council of Community Colleges and former NJ Commissioner of Labor: We have seen a real change to our approach in community colleges to developmental education. In the past, the knee-jerk reaction was to give everyone an Accuplacer test and take a hard line that if you don’t do well, you will take remedial education until you get to a certain level. We have found the worst thing you can do is put someone in remedial education and leave them there.

Our colleges have taken two sets of reforms. First is to not just rely on the Accuplacer to determine who needs developmental education. Our colleges are looking at multiple measures, looking at high school grade point averages, a variety of things. The other is, put them in remedial courses while they are also in credit-bearing courses, [with] teacher and learning opportunities to support students.

Sue Henderson, president, New Jersey City University and a former high school math teacher: We have found it is far more beneficial to put students in a credit course with wraparound services that then help them understand. The other piece that my and other schools are doing is we are understanding that to learn to write is not a one-semester inoculation but over four years, as they will not only need to write in an English class, but they will also need to write in their chemistry class.

The common idea is [about the need] to think critically and problem solve. And problem solve is not simplistic problems, but you will have to work in teams and solve very complex problems.

We have to understand what is important about mathematics is not the skills, but what are the concepts behind it; those are critical. What we need to keep in common is what is it that you need. And right now, statistics is very important. Not only the calculation of it, but the understanding behind it.

Business perspective

Gene Waddy, CEO of Diversant
Gene Waddy, CEO of Diversant, a Red Bank-based IT staffing company: It isn’t about differential equations and whether you got the problem right. It was the process. It wasn’t about being right but what degree of right and why, and not giving up. What I learned about was the collaboration and tenacity and bringing in the talents of a group to solve a problem. In business, it is what we do everyday.

Writing, writing and more writing. That’s a skill you use everyday, whether writing an email or a report. I tell people all the time, your documents and your writing arrive before you do. So before I ever meet you, you write me an email that looks like it’s written by somebody in the 7th grade, and then you show up and you’re the chief so-and-so officer of whatever company, I’m making a judgment about you. That is something I’m stickler for.

One critical skill?

Mooney: Final word, what is one important skill that you think a New Jersey high school graduate should have?

Henderson: I would hope that high school students leave having done a significant project as a group.

Waddy: I go back to the soft skills — the ability to present ideas and be able to tie ideas around a common theme. That will take them very far in life.

Fichtner: The list is long, but I will throw in the real importance of work experience and integrating what is learned in a classroom in a work experience. That is really important to getting our students on a pathway to something that is beyond high school and to some post-secondary credential.

Eno: I will go with students’ need to believe in themselves, students need to see themselves as capable of academic work beyond high school. They need to see themselves in the job market that is out there. They need to believe in their own abilities and their own unique style as a pathway to getting there.

Watch the NJTV News video of the roundtable.