New Jersey Skated by for Years on Misleading Graduation Rates, But Now It's Closing the 'Honesty Gap'

Dec 12, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Laura Waters

Does it seem odd to you that we’re celebrating the fact that half of New Jersey’s third-graders are at or above grade level in language arts and math? If you’re puzzled by this exuberance—only half?—then you’re missing a critical piece of our state’s history: For decades we’ve been lying to ourselves, our families, our constituents and our children. While our high school graduation rates are traditionally sky-high and a source of great pride, we have been dishonest about our students’ mastery of material necessary to succeed in colleges and careers. In the world of education, like in most arenas, [pullquote position="right"]it’s tempting to sugarcoat outcomes.[/pullquote] Who doesn’t enjoy back-slapping deference from politicians and lobbyists? But here’s what we didn’t know: This sort of disingenuous reporting of proficiency rates—what some call the “ Honesty Gap”—hurts children and families. The Collaborative for Student Success defines the Honesty Gap as “the result of a lack of political courage from some policymakers that do not want to be truthful with parents that our students are not prepared for college or the workforce.” As the data shows, New Jersey is making enormous progress in its recovery from this malady, one which had left us wallowing in false perceptions and low expectations. In fact, in a short period of time we have achieved a remarkable turnaround by upgrading course content to the New Jersey Student Learning Standards and adopting high-quality assessments aligned with those standards. It is critical that we build on this progress so that our children are prepared for post-high school life. Consider a few historical facts from a plethora of Honesty Gap evidence:
  • Almost 10 years ago, Gov. Jon Corzine’s Education Commissioner Lucille Davy conceded that N.J.’s old high school diploma qualifying exam, the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), was actually an eighth-grade level test.
  • The Special Review Assessment (SRA), first designed for students with disabilities and English-language learners, morphed over time into an exit exam for all prospective high school graduates who couldn’t pass the HSPA after three tries. The SRA was impossible to fail and inflated our graduation rate at the expense of the credibility of a New Jersey diploma. In 2008, 11,000 students were fooled into thinking that they were equipped for career prospects.
  • When New Jersey switched from the widely-derided SRA to the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA), an alternative test that specifically forbid teachers from “assist[ing] the student in any way except to make sure that the student is on the correct page of the answer document,” passing rates plummeted to 10 percent in language arts and 34 percent in math.

No One Is Immune

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this affliction of dishonesty is restricted to low-income districts. Many suburban students leave high school clutching a diploma but missing newly-necessary skills—critical thinking, conceptual understanding, the ability to quickly synthesize multiple source materials—necessary to succeed in colleges and careers. In fact, nearly half of all students who are slotted into remedial courses come from middle-, upper-middle and upper-class families. [pullquote position="right"]We’re better than this.[/pullquote] That is why New Jersey has imposed its own sort of remediation by upgrading to high-quality standards and assessments. Our students are rising to this challenge. Over the last two years the percentage of students achieving mastery of grade-level skills has leapt 6 points in language arts and 5 points in math. The Collaborative for Student Success, in its state-by-state ratings of Honesty Gaps, reports that since the advent of newly-aligned annual assessments, “New Jersey’s latest student test results more closely reflect proficiency rates identified by NAEP, indicating that parents and teachers are now getting more accurate information about their children’s readiness.” Our kids are up to the task. Now it’s time for adults to make a firm commitment to staying the course. After all, what’s the alternative? Backsliding to disingenuous reports of student mastery? Denying the reality of our newly flat world where our old course content and standardized tests like HSPA and SRA are as relevant to our kids’ needs as protractors and slide rules? Handing out fake diplomas? Myth-busting is hard. No one is thrilled by new information that our high school graduates are not as ready for future endeavors as we once thought. But our children and their teachers have shown us over the last three years that they are fully capable of meeting higher expectations embedded in newly-aligned standards and assessments. Don’t sell them short. Trust in their potential and stay the course.

Laura Waters

Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for all. She is based in New Jersey, where she and her husband have raised four children. She recently finished serving 12 years on her local school board in Lawrence, New Jersey, where she was president for nine of those years. Early in her career, she taught writing to low-income students of color at SUNY Binghamton through an Educational Opportunity Program.

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