Did you know that in New Jersey only 47% of adults read at middle school-level? In Essex, Hudson, and Passaic counties it’s ten points lower.
These sobering data points come from Laura Overdeck in today’s NJ Spotlight, who notes that, based on assessment data collected by the state Department of Education, one out of three students is below grade-level in both reading and math. She asks, “how did we get here?”
By shunning accountability and testing for our children.
For instance, fierce battles have been waged to reduce New Jersey graduation requirements. That’s the very step that sends unprepared youth into the world without the skills they need. As a math tutor at the embattled Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, I have seen the fallout firsthand: The women seeking to earn their associate degree hold high school diplomas, and yet I am often tutoring them on seventh grade math. They are nowhere near high school proficiency — nor employability, especially with a criminal record as a second strike against them.
Overdeck attributes this gap between grade-level and proficiency to grade inflation. (See the 64 Floor for an extreme example or this Newark high school that bars teachers from failing students.) In high-poverty districts only 35% of students who are given A’s reach proficiency on state assessments. These students and their parents, Overdeck writes, “are not even informed or aware that they are not learning as much as their peers in other schools…. Year after year, we push kids into the next grade with their classmates, and into increasingly challenging material for which they are ill-prepared. This destroys their self-esteem and has generated a nation of underskilled adults.”
What else gets in the way of our most needy students? The backlash against standardized assessments. Sure, no one likes tests. Overdeck acknowledges, “it is understandable that the findings from these explorations are painful.” But we need the data: ”Refusing to diagnose these students’ plight,” she says, “reinforces structural racism, period. These are the very students who need help the most.”
This is where state Sen. Teresa Ruiz is absolutely correct to voice concern about our system’s ills and to push for change. Some independent initiatives have been set into motion, such as a new statewide tutoring initiative funded by the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund and my own family’s Overdeck Foundation. But we need holistic long-term change to take root within the schools themselves. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets managed, so it is time to face the realities head-on.