High School graduation rates in New Jersey are up to the highest levels since 2011. And for the first time in years, the Department of Education’s tracking of graduation rates by gender shows girls are more likely to graduate than boys. Senior Corresponding David Cruz sat down with NJ Spotlight Editor at Large Colleen O’Dea to dig in to what’s behind the numbers.
Cruz: Your latest is on graduation rates across the state and I was surprised that the number was so high — 90 percent. I don’t know why I was surprised by that. Was it surprising?
O’Dea: No, it’s not surprising if you track these things over time. It had been actually higher before the state adopted this new methodology a few years back, which was a little crazy because it could end up with your graduation rate being more than 100 percent if you had 50 students at the start of the year and, you know, 55 if five came in. Suddenly it looks like you’ve got this rate that’s a little crazy.
Cruz: That was one of my questions here, the new methodology. It’s been a few years, right? What was the big difference.
O’Dea: So what happens now is you look at the number of ninth graders that you had, freshmen, and then students who move in and out of the district, and then you compare that with the total number who graduate four years later. So you’re actually looking at these kids as they move through the system, rather than just saying this is how many we had at the start of the year and this is how many we had at the end.
Cruz: So more clear?
O’Dea: It’s much more clear.
Cruz: So how do the 2018 graduation numbers compare to the recent past?
O’Dea: It’s been going up a little bit every year. We’re up to 90.5 percent. It’s actually very good compared with the nation. The national average is about 84 percent, only Iowa does better than us and they’ve got a 91 percent rate. And this is now, all states are using the same methodology so you we can really look and compare from state to state.
Cruz: So we’re Number Two?
O’Dea: We’re Number Two.
Cruz: I have to say, you know, I guess because we cover this a lot, education is such a big issue in New Jersey, just to hear that we’re Number Two makes me happy, actually. But what myths do these numbers dispel?
O’Dea: We hear constantly people, I guess it’s usually business people or maybe even the college is complaining, we’re getting students who are unprepared. So there’s a question, I think, if we’re graduating so many students, how can they be unprepared when we’re really putting them through a fairly rigorous curriculum? They’ve got standardized tests they have to take, right? The PARCC test, which there’s been a lot of controversy about, but it’s a pretty tough test. So I’m not sure how to reconcile those two things.
Cruz: I think just surviving the changes in the standards of the standardized tests over the past five years they should get extra points for that, extra credit. So what do these numbers confirm, that we’ve kind of known all along but the numbers now say, yeah you were right about that.
O’Dea: The numbers say that we have really made it a point in New Jersey to push kids and try to get them to graduate. We know that it’s very important to have an educated workforce, and so we’ve worked hard at all levels, not just for the typical student, but also for students with language problems, you know where English is a second language, students with special needs, so we’ve really been kind of working at all levels to make sure we can get students that high school education.
Cruz: We should also say that graduating from high school is not necessarily a barometer of your success as a student, or your ability to learn, right?
O’Dea: It may not be, right. In some cases it may not be. You may be a good tester, or you have taken some of these alternate routes to graduating.
Cruz: There’s a mythology, right, about how our kids are doing and you always hear that the kids in districts that get less money from the state don’t do as well as kids from districts that get more money. And there’s always this battle, it’s a constant present battle, about funding these districts. Do these numbers confirm that kids in higher funded schools do better?
O’Dea: It does not confirm that. What the best barometer really is still winds up being the wealth of a community. So what we typically see is those high schools in wealthier communities in Morris County, Bergen County, Union County, the wealthier Essex County towns, those have the highest graduation rates near 100 percent. On the other side, when you’ve got the districts that are getting more money from the state because they need it, because they’re you know poorer communities, they have all those challenges. Your Newark, Trenton, Camden, New Brunswick — they have among the lowest rates, more like a high 60s, low 70s percent, so there’s a big difference there.
Cruz: These numbers are from the state of New Jersey, right? Is this the first time that they’ve broken them down in terms of ethnicity and so on?
O’Dea: They do try to break them down in terms of ethnicity.
Cruz: Who performs the best in terms of ethnic groups?
O’Dea: Asian students perform the best, boy that’s a stereotype, but you know it holds out. Their rate was 97 percent, then you have non-Hispanic whites had a 95 percent rate, Hispanic students and black students were about 85 percent, so there definitely continues to be a gap in terms of race and ethnicity in our graduates.
Cruz: You guys on NJ Spotlight are co-workers now, you have an interactive map that is really interesting and folks can go to NJSpotlight.com and like a look at that and check where their town falls on this list.
O’Dea: Yes, we try to do that. That’s one of the things I love to do. We give you those maps. You can hover over them, click on them, and you can see exactly how your town is doing.