There’s lots of talk in local papers today about the swelling dropout rate in New Jersey’s public high schools. This topic of the day was prompted by Corzine’s announcement Tuesday of a year-long “New Jersey High School Graduation Campaign.” More than 80% of high school freshmen graduate on time, but in urban districts the numbers are much lower – for example, Newark has only a 63% graduation rate. According to the Asbury Park Press,
The New Jersey cities targeted have some schools with especially high dropout rates, according to state data. In the 2006-07 school year, for instance, the dropout rate at Camden High was about one in four. And at Renaissance Academy, an alternative school in Newark, it was one in three.
It’s a no-brainer to push more high-schoolers to graduate. But can you simultaneously accomplish that and make it harder to graduate from high school?
Because, counter-intuitive or not, that’s what we are doing. In another initiative courtesy of both Corzine and the DOE, officially called “NJ STEPS: Redesigning Education in New Jersey for the 21st Century,” we will be implementing an increasingly rigorous set of graduation requirements (here’s a table from the DOE that gives the details). In a nutshell, the High School Redesign Committee has proposed mandating a single set of required courses, including chemistry, algebra, geometry, and college-prep English, and implementing six new tests, or “competency assessments,” that all students would be required to pass in order to graduate.
Who could argue that our high schools should be both more rigorous and that fewer kids should drop out? Let’s unpack it a bit.
These new requirements will be invisible to our higher-performing districts. For example, in Montgomery Township in Somerset County students are already required to complete a total of 125 credits, although the current state requirement is less than 100 credits. Testing? No problem. The kids there ace the HSPA’s and are among the state leaders on SAT’s. What’s another test?
In fact, the new state reforms – both the emphasis on graduation rate and the increased rigor – will cause nary a ripple in schools like Montgomery. It’s the schools at the other end of the spectrum that will drown. There’s a funny kind of conceit here amidst all the huffing and puffing of mandates coming down from Trenton: that somehow a state as differentiated as New Jersey can, by force of words and paperwork, be homogenized. If we set high standards, they will be met. If we urge lower dropout rates, the kids will graduate.
Speaking for the less buoyant schools, David Sciarra at the Education Law Center spouts,
Unfortunately, the recommendations outlined last April in the NJ Steps report and the Commissioner’s proposals to amend NJ’s high school graduation requirements and the state assessment system move us in the wrong direction. Instead of promoting innovative and challenging opportunities for our best students and gap-closing supports for our most needy ones, the Commissioner has recommended a one-size-fits-all program of more state standards and tests that does not address the realities and challenges facing our secondary schools. Despite references to “personalized learning environments” and “student learning plans,” the core of the proposal, adopted from the American Diploma Project sponsored by Achieve, Inc, a national group of business and political leaders far removed from the realities of K-12 public schools, is a largely conventional plan to ramp up traditional academic course work in a “one-size-fits-all” framework that will be difficult to impose and costly to implement.
Reality check, anyone?