COMMENTARY: These Three NJ Schools Defy Murphy Administration’s Push for Low Standards

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Hindsight is golden but here’s what we know: School closures and remote instruction during the 2020-2021 school year were academic and emotional disasters for most kids and we should have known that from the start.

Yet there is one type of school where students suffered less, notes Jay Mathews in yesterday’s Washington Post, schools where “learning continued at a high level” despite COVID-19 because leaders there remained “committed to deep learning for all students.” Mathews says he’s “not saying high standards are a cure for the damage of pandemics. My only point is that if you look for schools that succeed even in the worst conditions, they tend to demand much from students and help them achieve those goals.”

In New Jersey, three public high schools meet those criteria,* according to Mathews’ “Challenge Index,” which he’s maintained for 24 years. His original hypothesis was if students are encouraged—sometimes even required— to take AP and IB courses, along with the attendant tests, regardless of their grade point average or any other criteria– they’ll fare better out in the real world. He has been proven right: high expectations among teachers and students leads to better life outcomes.  The Challenge Index ignores whether kids pass AP/IB tests because Mathews thinks scores “are more a measure of the affluence of parents than of the quality of the school.” Instead he uses a simple ratio of the number of college-level tests taken each year divided by the number of graduating students.

In other words, it’s not about whether you get a 1 or a 5 on your AP Statisitics test. It’s about the experience of participating in a high-level class with “ambitious teaching.” Most high schools, says Mathews, “don’t understand that even students who fail the exams learn more than they would in regular courses.” One teacher in Oregon whose school made the switch to requiring several AP classes for each student didn’t believe it would work but commented, “after a week of initial grumbling, students began to accept AP for Everyone as the norm. My response to any and all concerns was simply, ‘This is what we do here now.’ I’d forgotten how flexible teenagers can be. They quickly accepted and moved on.”

The approach— setting high expectations to maximize students’ educational and social mobility–is anathema to leaders of the Murphy Administration’s Department of Education. Instead, they are doing everything possible to lower standards, taking Murphy’s first Commissioner’s 64 Floor scheme statewide. Here are three recent examples:

  1. In December the DOE announced a change to the definition of a NJ high school diploma: It no longer designates college and career-readiness.  Instead, as I described here, New Jersey high school graduates will be certifiably ready to graduate high school. (This is like limbo: how low can you go?)’
  2. We’re starting the process of  uncoupling the high school diploma-qualifying test from diplomas; this year it will be a “field test” and next year, well, whatever.  Anyway, we were only testing algebra and 10th grade reading, telling families their kids were ready for college when, says Senator Teresa Ruiz, we were “setting a trap for students” who, in reality, are “woefully unprepared. ”  (Side note: I think we should eliminate the diploma-qualifying test altogether. As Bob Goodman argues here, NJ’s diploma-qualifying process has “led to the creation of weak tests in a narrow set of subject areas” when we’d serve students better by offering low-stakes assessments in a wider variety of subjects. Our current state tests are utterly unindicative of mastery/career readiness. It’s a foolish metric, just like seat-time.) 
  3. Slowly but surely, the Murphy Administration is decimating NJ’s public charter school sector by reneging on previously-approved school expansions and rejecting applications for new schools, a political posture that overwhelmingly harms students trapped in low-performing, low-achieving, low-expectation schools.

Back to Mathews’ list.

Here are the three New Jersey high schools ranked in the top 300 of the Challenge Schools. (Two notes: I left off the fourth because it’s a private high school in Livingston called Newark Academy with a 15% admissions rate and tuition and fees of about $47K a year. Also, it may be worth thinking about why NJ schools comprise only 1% of the national list.)

  • Our highest ranking public high school on the list–#77 in the  nation– is Newark’s North Star Academy, part of the Uncommon Schools network. Students are admitted through the traditional district’s universal enrollment system. There is no admissions criteria, although North Star’s high expectations are well-known. Everyone takes algebra in 8th grade and everyone takes AP classes in high school. Sixty-one percent of North Star’s graduating class of 2020 passed at least one AP exam, compared with 31 percent for New Jersey and 24 percent for the country. (See here for a profile of how this works.)  92% of graduates are in college 16 months after graduation. This is one of the schools denied an expansion by the Murphy Administration despite a lengthy waiting list.
  • Jersey City’s Dr. Ronald McNair Academy ranks #142 on the nation’s Challenge Index. Admission to this elite magnet school is based on PSAT scores, grades, teacher recommendations, attendance, and extracurricular activities. Everyone takes AP courses and everyone goes to college.  From the dress code:Traditional business attire is required by all students.” 96% of students are in college 16 months after graduation.
  • Elizabeth High School Frank Cicarell Academy comes in at #192. Although many national high school rankings (US News and World Report, for instance) don’t make the distinction between this school and the umbrella term “Elizabeth High School,” the Frank Cicarell Academy is an elite magnet. From the district website: ‘For the 2021-2022 School Year, students selected to attend Elizabeth High School will be chosen based on their Grade Point Average through 3rd marking period in 8th grade.” Badda boom. That’s it. Blow 8th grade and you’re out of luck. But every student who gets in is required to take AP and honors courses, and college acceptance and persistence rates are high: 16 months after high school graduation, over 90% of students are enrolled in college. 

 

 

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