On May 3, the New Jersey State Board of Education lowered the passing score for the state’s high school exit exam in order to ensure that more students would qualify to graduate in 2024 and 2025. The test has not been used in four years. The requirement was either canceled or waived during and immediately after the pandemic disrupted public education across the state.
The test has been reinstated as a graduation requirement for the classes of 2024 and 2025, the very classes for which the passing score has been adjusted downward. In March, a trial version of the exam had alarming results.
The English language portion of the exam had 39% of tested students pass. In mathematics, the number was 50%. The number of students who could not pass the exam was astounding. The state’s 90%-plus graduation rate was in grave danger.
The state Department of Education looked at what lowering the passing grade would do to the numbers. Bringing the score down, as they finally did May 3, would mean 57% of the students would pass the exam in mathematics and 81% in English – a much better outcome even if it was achieved by weakening the standard. The vote to lower the passing score was close. The resolution passed 6 votes in the affirmative and 5 votes in the negative.
So, what does all this mean? As board Vice President Andrew Mulvihill put it, “What does a diploma in New Jersey mean and how do we know who is college ready and career ready?”
The exit test is not the only pathway to a high school diploma in New Jersey. Students can choose to take an alternative test which includes the SAT or ACT exams. Yet another path to a degree is called the portfolio process where students, with the aid of school district personnel, collect graded work as part of a portfolio of evidence that they have the required proficiency to graduate. Each portfolio is reviewed in Trenton.
At the May 3 meeting, the state school board officials presented the board with statistics to show that leaving the exit test passing score where it was would result in an extra 40,000 portfolio appeals, a number that would overwhelm district and state staff.
Let’s not be so quick to put all the blame for the low scores on the pandemic. In 2019, 52% of the graduating students took the state exam; 37% of those students passed three of the four college ready benchmarks; 36% did not pass any. There is a real gap in New Jersey between being “ready” to graduate high school and being “ready” to enter college or the workforce.
In the presentation to the school board supporting the proposal to lower the test passing score, state education officials did not use college or career ready language. Instead, they spoke of ready to graduate. That brings us right back to Mulvihill’s question. What does a high diploma mean?
We know that ACT test scores from 2022 for New Jersey high school students had the largest drop in scores in 30 years. Test scores as far back as 2013 show large segments of the high school population not ready for college.
Yet we, as a nation, throw tax dollars at the colleges to open programs to encourage more college enrollments. The result is soaring student loan debt, high levels of remedial course work at the college level, and an appallingly low graduation rate for the students who enter four- or two-year colleges seeking a degree.
The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that 64% of first-time, full-time undergraduate students seeking a four-year degree attain a degree in up to six years. Students at two-year community colleges have a shockingly lower success rate, where 28% of students seeking a two-year degree achieve that goal within four years.
Things are not much better on the employment front. In a 2021 Harvard Business Review article, Michael Hansen, CEO of Cengage Group, argued, “The U.S. education system must be reevaluated to better prepare students with employable skills.” Whether one buys the need for a total “reevaluation,” there is plenty of evidence of a disconnect between education and employability.
The public school system in America educates over 90% of all students. It is the predominant way in which we, as a nation, prepare our young people for success. Recently, the public school system is losing enrollments. We don’t have good data yet on where those students are going. We know that home schooling has increased and that private schools have seen a slight uptick in enrollment. Neither of those sources explain the almost 1 million student loss in public school enrollment. We just do not have good data outside the public school system.
The point is we keep returning to the question of what should a high school diploma mean? As a community, we need to discourse on that question. Six people on a board of 11 in Trenton lowered the passing grade for an exit test. We do not seem to have a consensus on what proficiencies a high graduate should possess.
It is no longer sufficient to have education officials declare success by touting graduation rates when they are the same individuals who set the bar for those graduation rates. The Pew Research Center is just one source of data that shows U.S. student academic achievement lags that of their peers in many other industrial nations.
In New Jersey, it is time to define the proficiencies a high school diploma stands for while holding our state and local education officials accountable for providing the vast majority of our students with those proficiencies.