Who Needs Algebra II? A New Report Reveals Disconnect Between Test-Haters and What New Jersey Students Need To Live Here.

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Less than two weeks ago a local paper reported that Trenton public schools students feel unsafe and uneducated.  At about the same time an appellate court ruled that the New Jersey Department of Education’s regulations governing PARCC assessments “are in violation of laws passed by the Legislature,” setting those Trenton students up for even lower standards for academic growth. (Here’s my post on that.) Now, in another flash of happenstance, Konrad Mugglestone and Michael Dannenberg have published an analysis, “LOCKED OUT OF THE FUTURE: How New Jersey’s Higher Education System Serves Students Inequitably and Why It Matters.”

Their report zeroes in on the failure of Garden State high schools to set up students, particularly, those of color and low-income (like Trenton students), for success in two and four-year colleges.  And this is really important because “[a] greater percentage of new jobs in New Jersey require a bachelor’s degree or higher than nearly every other state.” But these students enter two and four-year colleges dramatically unprepared for coursework: “Nearly half of Black and Latinx college students attend public two-year institutions in the state, where all things being equal their likelihood of completion is 30 percentage points less than similar students with similar academic credentials attending four-year institutions.”

I continue to hope our elected and appointed leaders will stop condoning these inequities. But bellwethers indicate otherwise: Gov. Phil Murphy and Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet appear committed to lowering standards in high schools by eliminating our ability to monitor whether students are ready for college and/or careeers. 

Remember, the whole point of administering tests like PARCC that are actually aligned with grade-level course content is to reveal and remediate gaps in college and career readiness. But we’re giving up (unless the DOE appeals the appellate court ruling in the next two weeks or the State Legislature decides to tweak the statute that limits testing to 11th grade or the DOE replaces PARCC with another test that accurately measures student proficiency). I don’t know the odds of any of these potential actions. But there’s this: Repollet recently suggested that we use the SAT as a an alternative assessment to PARCC; he said he would set the “cut score” for math, the score necessary for passing, at 440, which, according to the College Board, is the 25th percentile for a “nationally representative sample” and 22nd percentile for someone actually taking the SAT.

A 440 in math is below a ninth-grade level for math proficiency. 

That’s politically expedient (especially in light of the close ties between Murphy and NJEA) but abandons our quest for student success in two or four-year colleges. It also ignores the necessity of a B.A. for jobs in NJ which, according to the report, is “20 percent higher than the national average and surpassed only by Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.”

So by lowering standards for high school graduation, New Jersey is condemning many low-income Black and Latinx college students to failure in college and careers. Some people call this the “belief gap,” or the gap between what students can achieve and what others believe they can achieve. It reeks of implicit bias and fatalism. Repollet copped to this when, while superintendent at Asbury Park Schools (according to an anonymous source), he told some administrators that “one of the reasons he wanted to reduce the tests was that he didn’t think it was good for the self-esteem of students to keep failing test after test, that they already knew that they would fail.”

Let’s get back to the report, which covers a lot more than our substandard high schools. (I’ll list some highlights at the bottom.)

When Repollet went before the State Board of Education and legislative committees with his recommendations for replacing the six end-of-course PARCC tests given to high school students with only two (English 10 and Algebra 1), he might have been unaware of the proficiency levels required for college completion.  Mugglestone and Dannenberg clear up any confusion.

They write that while there is a ten-point gap in English Language Arts test scores between White and Black students on NAEP and PARCC, “of far greater concern…are results on the Algebra II test benchmarks. Algebra II completion and success has been demonstrated to be a particularly strong predictor of academic success at the college level. However, while 32 percent of white students meet or exceed expectations on this test, only 9 percent of Black test-takers and less than 13 percent of Latinx test-takers meet the same. Put another way, a white student is more than four times as likely than their Black peers, and approximately two-and-a-half times as likely as their Latinx peers to pass the New Jersey Algebra II PARCC test. Both gaps are similar to NAEP mathematics test result. In combination, New Jersey’s NAEP and PARCC test scores make it clear the groundwork for the state’s college degree attainment gaps is laid in the primary and secondary school system.


Some 37 percent of white students scored “proficient” or “advanced” compared to only 10 percent of Black students and 15 percent of Latinx students on the 12th grade mathematics test. In other words, according to national testing, 90 percent of New Jersey Black and 85 percent of Latinx seniors exit high school not ready for postsecondary coursework in mathematics – the subject area in which standards-based school reform has shown the most success.

New Jersey originally mandated that students take an end-of-course assessment in Algebra II. That was the right way to go, given the proficiency level necessary for completion of college. We’re far from meeting that bar. Example: out of 374 valid tests, 0 percent of students at Trenton Central High attain proficiency in Algebra II. (Or something close to that: the DOE leaves blank the proficiency numbers when they’re very low to protect student privacy.) In fact, Trenton High students don’t even meet the Repollet’s low bar for proficiency in the SAT: the average math score last year was 427. And only 40 percent of Trenton High graduates bother to enroll in either two or four-year colleges after high school in a state where, increasingly, employment requires a B.A. From the report: “New Jersey has one of the lowest projected needs for two-year degrees or less. Indeed, only 26 percent of jobs created in the state require these types of degrees (only Massachusetts and District of Columbia have a lower need for associate degrees.”

These students are, indeed, locked out of the future. 

A few other highlight from Muggleston and Dannenberg’s analysis:

  • We have an increasing out-migration problem: “New Jersey is the fourth highest exporter of students to out-of-state colleges, where statistically they are 80 percent likely to settle after graduation.”
  • New Jersey colleges are “sharply racially stratified.” Black students are “nearly 30 percent less likely to attend an in-state four-year college than his/her white peer.” Latinx students are “18 percent less likely.” This is important because two-year college students are “30 percentage points less” likely to complete a B.A. than students attending four-year colleges.
  • New Jersey colleges are really expensive: “One can imagine the sticker shock a first-generation or low-income student might feel when he/she knows little about the college financial aid system and confronts a $30,000+ published annual price. In fact, ‘sticker shock’ has been illustrated to push high-performing low-income students away from good colleges. In New Jersey, this phenomenon is likely to occur because the published cost of attendance (tuition, fees, room, board, and supplies) at four-year public institutions in 2016-2017 ranges from $28,417 to $35,130 per year – much higher than the national average of $20,150. In fact, the total published cost of attendance at even the cheapest New Jersey public 4-year institution represents well over half of the household median income for Black or Latinx families in New Jersey. Consider Rutgers University, New Jersey’s flagship institution, where the sticker price in 2016 was $30,400. Put against 25 of its peers (mostly state flagship institutions), Rutgers was the third most expensive by sticker price – behind only Cal-Davis and University of Colorado.”
  • New Jersey’s allocation of state operating funds and financial aid to public and non-profit private colleges is “wildly inequitable.” The researchers compare state aid to two state colleges, Montclair and Rowan. Montclair serves a far more educationally-needy population than Rowan but “Rowan was appropriated over three times as much money per undergraduate student as Montclair State. When asked, the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education has acknowledged that there is no clear policy rationale explaining, much less justifying, current marked inequities in the distribution of state funding to public institutions of higher education.”
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