State Releases Latest Performance Figures for High School Graduation

John Mooney | March 5, 2020 | Education
Graduation rates still top 90%, but only half of students are earning diplomas by passing both language and arts tests — others follow alternative routes
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With debates hardly finished over New Jersey’s student testing and its role in high school graduation, the Murphy administration released more statistics yesterday that provide a mixed — albeit limited — picture of the current state of high schools.

In maybe the most critical number, New Jersey high schools in 2019 continued to graduate more than 90% of their students on time, according to the state.

The four-year percentage was slightly down from the previous year — from 90.9% to 90.6% — but the rate remains one of the highest, if not the highest, in the country. The five-year rate rose slightly from 92.4% to 92.5%.

The official dropout rate is about 3.2%, defined as the percentage of those who started in ninth grade and didn’t complete within five years. The figure is unchanged in the last year, officials said.

More ways than one to earn diploma

But the administration also released the data for how those students met existing requirements for a diploma; only half of those graduating passed both the language arts and math tests that are the first line of requirement.

The rest needed alternative measures to graduate, including minimum scores on SATs or other college-placement tests. And 5% to 7% of those who passed relied on the last-resort option, a “portfolio” review of their classwork.

In addition, the state released the last of its test scores for the 2018-2019 school year, this one in science, a test not required for graduation but nonetheless closely watched.

These results were far more sobering, not only for high schools but also for elementary and middle schools.

Disappointing science results

Just a quarter — or 27.3% — fell within the proficiency range in the state’s high school science test given in 11th grade. Half of those tested fell at the lowest of four levels.

Results for the lower grades were comparable. For the fifth grade, 29.3% were within the proficiency range, and just 19.8% in eighth grade.

A caveat regarding those scores: This was the first full year using a new test that met the nationally recognized Next Generation Science standards; lower results are to be expected with a new test. It replaces the previous New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJASK) science test.

“Those new standards are substantially different than those we had in the past,” said Linda Eno, assistant education commissioner.

“They are much more performance-based, higher-level standards,” she said, “expecting students to be able to demonstrate not just application of laboratory practices but also data analysis, investigative learning and the ability to talk about and illustrate what they learned.”

Still, science for years has not been a strong suit for New Jersey schools and students on state tests, as well as national and international tests. Whether it has fallen victim to the nation’s emphasis on reading, writing and math testing, state officials said this new test will be a good benchmark to look for strengths and weaknesses in schools when it comes to teaching science.

“While in language arts and math, we top the nation relative to other states, in science we fall right in the middle,” said Diana Pasculli, the deputy assistant commissioner who heads the state’s assessment office. “This (latest round of scores) gives us a true opportunity build off these results.”

All the information was released yesterday before the State Board of Education’s monthly meeting, where the administration presented the latest model of the state’s annual school performance report, a compendium of dozens of data points of every public school in the state.

The report cards themselves won’t be released to the public until next week, but state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet and his staff said there would be some significant additions to the annual reports that could prove to be provocative, if not controversial.

Included for the first time will be cost-per-pupil broken down by school, instead of the previous district-wide number, as well as racial and other breakdowns of teachers and staff, in addition to previously released data for students.