NJ’s Field of Dreams

A piece in the Gloucester County Times surveys three districts in regard to the newly rigorous high school requirements: Washington, which boasts a 97% graduation rate with 91.1% of kids planning to attend 2 or more years of college; Clayton, with a 86.5% graduation rate and 80.6% of kids planning to attend 2 or more years of college; and Paulson, with an 84.4 graduation rater and 79.1% of kids planning to attend 2 or more years of college.

[Nota bene: we’ve given the graduation rates based on kids who pass the HSPA; some kids graduate using the Alternative Assessment, which you can take after you fail the HSPA three times. Assemblyman Joseph Cryan has labeled NJ’s over-reliance on this “alternative” path to graduation as “criminal.”]

The reactions from the superintendents of these three Gloucester County districts are fairly predictable. Washington’s super is sanguine: his kids already do just fine, and there’s little he has to do to implement a new set of requirements of 3 years of lab science, higher-level math, economics. Most of kids already take these courses, and the new requirements will entail little change. However, the superintendents in Clayton and Paulson express a tad more worry, as a substantial cohort of their kids already struggle to graduate with less rigorous requirements.

Here’s what the article leaves out: the DFG’s, or District Factor Groups, which tell us the district’s socio-economic profile compared to other districts in the State. Washington has a DFG of GH on a scale from A (the poorest) to J (the richest). Clayton is a B, and Paulson is an A. Thus, these three cohorts of kids within one county have vastly different economic backgrounds, yet the DOE is determined that all NJ kids meet a college-prep curriculum.

Economics should not determine whether a kid should go to college or even graduate from high school. But there is a correlation here between community wealth and high school graduation rate. What will be the effect of the new graduation requirements? Will they encourage districts and the kids they serve to raise the bar? Or will they encourage kids to drop out if, for instance, they are stymied by algebra 2 or lab chemistry? Right now in New Jersey about 82% of our kids graduate from high school. Will the new requirements raise or lower this number?

Our guess is this: the number will go up in high-income districts (where the numbers are already very high) and drop in low-income districts.

We’d love to be proved wrong.

New Jersey’s standardization of high school graduation requirements is a microcosm of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The logic behind NCLB is that if you mandate it then it will happen. The same logic applies to the DOE’s attempt to streamline every kid in NJ into a college-prep program: if we build it, they will come. It made for a great movie, but it may not make for great education policy.

What do you think?

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