The Graduate

The high school diploma is a rite of passage, a giant step toward the future. But the road to the sheepskin isn’t the same for everyone.

The high school diploma is a rite of passage, a giant step toward the future. But the road to the sheepskin isn’t the same for everyone.

New Jersey graduates 88 percent of its high school students, earning the number-one ranking in the country and grudging respect from the 49 states that trail behind it. This rather impressive graduation rate tops the national average by more than 20 points. Still, as the state’s 18-year-olds prepare for college, technical training, military service, or full-time employment, many of them will find that they’ve got a lot more to learn. All the states left looking for ways to knock the Garden State off the graduation-rate pedestal in next year’s statistical evaluation have only to look to the Special Review Assessment, a controversial program that former state education commissioner William Librera called “the backdoor diploma.”

Each spring every New Jersey high school junior takes the state-mandated High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), a two-part exam in math and language arts that they must pass to graduate. Put into effect in 1996, the test is an outgrowth of the Public School Education Act, passed by the state Legislature in 1975 “to provide to all children of New Jersey, regardless of socioeconomic status or geographic location, the educational opportunity which will prepare them to function politically, economically and socially in a democratic society.”

If you pass the HSPA and complete the Core Curriculum Content Standards—course-work criteria in seven disciplines—you graduate with your class. Flunk one or both parts of the exam and your local school district gets involved: You can take tutorials aimed at improving your grasp of the material and retake the HSPA section you missed. Miss it again and you qualify for the Special Review Assessment (SRA), which allows local school leaders to review everything from grade point average to attendance and give you a shot at passing another set of like criteria to qualify for graduation.

“The SRA came about in 1988, when the HSPA, known then as the HSPT, was given to ninth graders. We moved it to eleventh graders in 1993 to make it more rigorous and have it occur as late in students’ high school careers as possible,” says Jay Doolan, acting assistant commissioner for educational programs and assessment for the state Department of Education. “Initially, the SRA became a second-chance mechanism for kids who didn’t test well, who suffered from the kind of anxiety that affected their performance. But now a lot of students in larger districts use it more frequently. Personally, I would like to see all students pass the HSPA.”

Dana Egreczky puts it more bluntly. “Fifty percent of the kids in our state are not passing the HSPA, so we treat the SRA as a viable alternate route to a diploma—and it’s not,” says Egreczky, vice president of workforce development for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. Egreczky is charged with figuring out how the state can create a diverse, multi-skilled body of workers who can invigorate the state’s many businesses, large and small. “The SRA is not preparing them for their role in the world, whether it’s going to college, technical school, or especially right into the workforce,” she says. “The test has to be abolished now if we’re going to survive this pandemic of apathy.”

Egreczky gets no satisfaction from preaching a sky-is-falling gospel of failing education. She spent sixteen years teaching high school science before becoming a corporate trainer and then moving on to the state Chamber of Commerce. Now she’s passionate about getting students to strive for educational achievement and to show Garden State employers that these soon-to-be-adults are viable job candidates. She loves these kids, which is why she has no compunction about dishing out the tough love. “I have gone back and forth with specialists who say that if we get kids to take their three years of mathematics—just basic math, not even Algebra II—this should be enough to prepare them for the real world,” she says. “And by the way, right now, a New Jersey high school student needs three years of math and four years of gym to graduate—go figure. Anyway, statistics show that students improve their chances of graduating from college 23 percent, 40 percent, and 62 percent by taking algebra and geometry, Algebra II, and a fourth math [trigonometry or calculus], respectively, in high school. You know, students can say, ‘Well, I never will use those classes in the real world.’ But taking them teaches complex thinking and critical examination. It’s like running on a treadmill: It doesn’t get you anywhere, but it still builds your muscles.”

William Librera, who was appointed commissioner of education by James E. McGreevey, resigned during Richard Codey’s fourteen-month tenure as governor, but not before he could seal the deal to abolish the SRA in its present form. The supplemental exam’s language arts assessment will be abandoned at the conclusion of the 2008–09 school year; the mathematics assessment will be eased out two years later. A four-part appeals process will be implemented to review the case of any student who doesn’t pass the HSPA, but it will shut the backdoor that Librera so vehemently condemned.

Doolan is quick to point out that while he’s not happy with the SRA, he’s equally concerned about the state of high school education in New Jersey. Doolan won’t go as far as Microsoft billionaire-turned-reformer Bill Gates, who famously pronounced, “High schools today are obsolete.” But Doolan does believe that no idea is inconsequential in any discussion of education reform. “We need to look at the core curriculum and raise the standards,” he says. “We need to prepare children better. There are a whole lot of reasons why kids are progressing well and a whole lot of reasons why they’re not. There are many things we can do to get students to achieve, and when we implement them we won’t be very popular.

“Twenty-two states, including New Jersey, are taking part in the American Diploma Project,” Doolan continues. “The project is aimed at raising high school requirements, particularly in English and math. It could include setting criteria for standards to succeed in postsecondary education and careers. When you compare New Jersey with other states, we’re always top-tier, but we have to also acknowledge that we have significant achievement gaps throughout the state, and we have to get them under control.”

Marion A. Bolden, the superintendent of schools in Newark, calls Librera’s description of the Special Review Assessment as a “backdoor diploma” too strong. Nonetheless, the Star-Ledger recently reported that the state’s urban schools graduate as many as 70 percent of students via the SRA route. Bolden, herself a success story out of Newark’s South Side (now Malcolm X. Shabazz) High School, is especially saddened that some observers conclude minorities are underachievers. “I would be more than happy if we never had to offer another SRA session,” Bolden says, “but I am also going to fight for any of my kids who can use this test to make sure they keep achieving. I also don’t agree with the premise of having one test as the gatekeeper to decide a kid’s educational fate. If these kids have a decent GPA, if they’re coming to school and making progress, I don’t want them to suffer because they failed on one indicator.

“While I agree fundamentally that we need to create a more stringent set of criteria for kids in high school, I don’t want to punish at-risk kids who deal with the stress of their environment—whether they can get to and from school safely, whether they are getting good nutrition, learning from proper role models, and actually being encouraged to achieve. For many of my kids, this school district is the only safe haven in their world, and we need to be there for them.”

Bolden has strong views on the state of education, and with four of her district’s high schools near the bottom of this year’s New Jersey Monthly survey, she’s always willing to explore new ways to reinvigorate a school and its students. “When I started here, the graduation rate was 45 percent,” she says, “and now we have a 69 percent graduation rate. We have to find a way to get to the kids who are most at risk and get them on the right track much earlier. It’s so easy to label this a high school problem, but the reality of the issue is that it begins in kindergarten. We get kids who, at five years old, are already eighteen months behind in their educational development. We work to get them caught up in elementary and middle school, but then we have the greatest risk in eighth grade, when my kids—especially the boys—are more attuned to the stereotypes of inner-city kids who achieve. Instead, they embrace the culture of negativity and lower expectations.

“I have started a program in our high schools,” Bolden continues. “Any senior who gets a 3.5 GPA or better gets a letter jacket, just like the one you get for making the varsity basketball or football team. We need to promote that it’s cool to be smart, and we need to make those kids who achieve in the classroom feel as though they are on a team themselves.”

That achievement gap—its causes and the end result of alternative testing—is central to the debate over use of the SRA. The state’s racial and ethnic diversity and urban/suburban breakdown create a polarizing dilemma, providing opportunities and challenges in assimilation, in language barriers, and in cultural context.

Arguments for setting tougher statewide standards aside, nobody wants to fight an idea that allows earnest but borderline students to keep developing. In that light, the SRA allows districts and students to identify weaknesses and improve those gaps in learning through tutoring sessions, remedial work, and second chances. Between the pre-SRA class of 1996 and the class of 2006, the graduation rates were 85.7 and 88 percent, respectively. That bump might not seem terribly large, but it represents roughly 4,000 students on the cusp of graduation, which would certainly increase the burden on already overcrowded districts.

It’s hard to argue that districts today don’t use the test, consciously or subconsciously, as a way to give kids an easier path to graduation while allowing districts to keep those enviable matriculation rates. And keeping statistics is as much an art as it is a science. In New Jersey, like most other states, you can drop out of school from ninth to eleventh grade and you won’t be counted as a dropout. The only way to be considered a dropout is to leave school anytime after you’ve started your senior year.

The stakes are stratospheric for a state in which 31 destitute school districts receive $1 billion in extra court-ordered state funding. Meanwhile, they and the 585 other districts are all trying to figure out how to ensure compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind law, which allows states to set their own standards for success. The Garden State’s per-pupil spending of more than $12,000 is among the nation’s highest, but with a tightened state budget jeopardizing state aid to schools that don’t meet No Child Left Behind standards, the pressure to paint rosy pictures of school achievement is significant.

In Camden, a former high school principal accused a district administrator of pressuring him to alter state math tests in an effort to improve student scores. In addition, questions were raised about the scores of fourth-graders at H.B. Wilson and U.S. Wiggins elementary schools. Scores at H.B. Wilson last year dropped an average of 77 points in math; districtwide, fourth-grade scores dipped 19 points in reading and 14 points in math.

State Education Commissioner Lucille E. Davy says that a state investigation is continuing into whether the district’s scores were manipulated. Meanwhile, embattled Superintendent Annette Knox resigned in July, accepting a $199,000 buyout of her three-year contract. The district is eligible for $175 million in state aid this school year. But if the investigation turns up improprieties with the testing scores, Knox could be sued by the state to return the money she was given as part of the buyout deal.

In the wake of Knox’s departure, former Camden schools superintendent Leonard Fitts returned to his old post in an interim capacity. “I see a difference in Camden today,” Fitts says. “I see new homes, scattered rebirth, and a new population that will eventually bring their children to our schools. But it’s the children—and their parents—who we must capture right now to make them believe that change can come.”

Fitts also sees a beleaguered staff. “I have only been here a few weeks this summer, but I have seen an erosion, an apathy, among some staff members. That must change,” he says. “We must show enthusiasm and commitment to success. Right now, we have about 45 openings in our classrooms and support staff, and we got 600 applicants for the jobs. That interest is the first step toward making education in Camden work.”

Fitts understands that small victories will help right now, but he doesn’t want the Special Review Assessment to be a crutch for much longer. “We need rigorous instruction, high and consistent achievement,” he says, “and a more rigorous curriculum to create a culture of learning.”

So what is a high school diploma worth in New Jersey? It’s impossible to generalize. In urban districts, it’s not geared merely to get out of school and into the workplace, just as in the suburban world it’s not merely a Harvard-or-bust proposition. But here’s where some of the stats get really scary: Sixty percent of New Jersey’s high school grads head off to college, either a two- or four-year institution. Forty-five percent of them make it to sophomore year. Twenty-five percent of them actually graduate in four years.

Oh, and those of you footing the bill for Junior’s higher ed might want to pump a little more cash into your monthly 529c programs—it’s taking an average of six years for kids to get that degree.

Remember John Belushi’s Animal House character, “Bluto” Blutarski, distraught that his 0.03 grade point average was getting him tossed from fictional Faber College? “Seven years of college down the drain,” he moaned. Comedy aside, the all-too-real reports indicate that the six-year period is actually inching up to seven. Educators, parents, and students blame extended college time on, among other things, taking part-time course loads to accommodate a job, taking semesters off to work and restock cash reserves, and doing remedial coursework to catch up on what was missed in high school.

These stats should be enough to jerk suburbanites back into the reality that, HSPA or SRA, the workload for Garden State high schoolers might need to be ratcheted up. If the kids in the best school districts arrive at the campus of their choice and are forced to play catch-up from their first English 101 survey course, it’s hardly a ringing endorsement for that yearly jolt of “Jersey still tops in graduation rate” headlines.

While some tiptoe to the edge of reform, Egreczky is calling for big steps. “A study shows that kids who do at least 15 hours of homework each week earn 35 percent more in wages in their careers,” Egreczky says. “In one district here, it’s been mandated that seventh and eighth graders have no more than 15 minutes of homework each night! It’s interesting that today’s parents were shaped by parents who made them do their homework, work hard, and strive to be the best. And it worked. These Baby Boomers became the nation’s most educated and affluent generation ever, and here we are ignoring the lessons we learned from our parents.

We’re all fat and happy and are afraid to push kids too hard, but we can get kids to achieve by getting excited about learning. If we define it as work, the kids think of it as work. But if we can get them to excel because it’s fun to fill your brain with all these new ideas and concepts, that’s the difference between getting them to learn and getting them to do well on tests but not retain the information.”

“We’re trying very hard to make sure that these kids who are working on getting diplomas through the SRA programs have greater goals than just working at Burger King,” Bolden says. “We have had a number of students over the years who have had to qualify through the SRA and have gone on to successful careers in two-year and four-year colleges, technical schools, and also right into apprenticeships to become plumbers, electricians, and other skilled workers.

“Any student who wants to be an auto mechanic is going to need to read at the level of a third-year college student,” Egreczky says. “Think about your car: It’s turned into one big computer, and anyone working on new cars today is going to have to be able to read documents that are really computer manuals.”
As the debate—unfortunately but perhaps inevitably—breaks down along socioeconomic and racial lines, Bolden and Egreczky agree that success knows no color. “I don’t believe pushing for more rigorous class work in schools is a racist policy,” Bolden says. “With the success that many urban schools proudly exhibit, nobody can say minority students can’t achieve. I can’t make excuses; I have to deliver. And I have to force kids to become accountable too.”

Egreczky agrees. “Is it racist to say that we need to get minority kids to achieve?” she asks. “I will argue that the opposite is true. It’s racist to say that we need to have lower expectations for minority students. It breaks my heart to see what many minority students have to overcome on their way to achievement. It’s especially true in a state where so many white suburban kids have the financial and emotional support system geared specifically to getting them to do their best. That said, you let any kid off the hook by making the test too easy.”

“We need to let kids have a life,” Bolden says. “Maybe we as a nation have lost it; we’ve let politicians hijack the agenda. But we’ve got to instill in these kids, from the suburbs or the cities, that it’s time for them to step up.

“We’re working on parents, too, to help everyone realize that we need real teaching. I don’t remember any of my teachers teaching so that we’d pass a test. They taught us, made sure we knew it, and we never freaked out when it was time for the test. Because we had learned the answers.”

Click here to leave a comment

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.