How We Fail the Kids in Camden

My heart is crushed right now just because he worked hard to reach this point,” [Beyonka] Walden-Utley said about her youngest son. “Please understand, I don’t want him given anything he did not earn. But at the same token, I don’t want him to not to have the same opportunities all the other children had prior to him to achieve this goal.”

That’s a heart-breaking quote in the Courier-Post’s story today from a parent of one of the hundreds of Camden City High seniors who failed the Alternate High School Assessment (AHSA), which for the first time this year replaced the old SRA. (For background, go here.) According to the article, an unnamed source said that half of the Camden’s seniors didn’t pass, which makes them ineligible for graduation and puts them in crowded company; our first go-round with the new ASHA and its more stringent procedures resulted in a failure rate of 90% of the 4500 kids who took the language arts portion and 66% of the 9,500 kids who took the math portion. The DOE’s take on this is that the new assessment hasn’t been field-tested yet it was “surprised” by the high rate of failure. Deputy Commissioner Willa Spicer issued a statement explaining that students who failed will take it again in August and “only then will we know how well students performed” because right now we have an “incomplete picture” and it’s too early to draw “meaningful conclusions.”

Of course it’s embarrassing. The SRA has allowed us to blithely offer diplomas to inadequately educated kids, thus inflating our high school graduation rate (much touted by NJEA as a sign of the health of NJ’s public education system) and covering up the failure of schools like Camden High. It’s not much of a cover-up; the data’s right there. For example, parents like Ms. Walden-Utley send their children to Camden High where the graduation rate is 39.8% (state average is 93.3%) and 33.3% are classified as eligible for special education services. There are no Advanced Placement courses. 31% of kids – the top achievers, most likely – even bothered to take the SAT’s, and average scores last year were 342 for Math and 352 for Verbal. Only 25.9% are able to pass the standard HSPA, a middle-school level test, and 53.3% used the old SRA last year. In fact, 80.5% failed the language arts portion of the HSPA in 2009 (up from 73.6% in 2008). In 2008, 87.1% failed the math portion; this year so few kids passed math that there is an asterisk in the state data under that column. A footnote explains, “To protect the privacy of students, the Department of Education suppresses sufficient information to eliminate the possibility that personally identifiable information will be disclosed.”

There are few other options for families. There’s another public high school, Woodrow Wilson, where 13.4% of kids pass the HSPA (though more kids go to college from there and there’s even a few A.P. courses. One student out of the 986 kids there got a passing score.) Camden Public Schools has a couple of magnet schools like Brimm Medical Arts, with stellar test scores and a passing rate of 89% on the HSPA, and Creative and Performing Arts High School, with less stellar scores and a 57.7% passage rate.

How about our Interdistrict School Choice Program, reviewed yesterday morning by the Senate Education Committee for potential reauthorization? Too bad. The one school that offers Camden students the ability to cross district lines in Camden County is Brooklawn Public School District, with 314 kids in grades K-8. High schoolers in Camden are out of luck.

The AHSA results are not the problem. They are the symptom of the gross failure of Camden Public Schools to thoroughly and efficiently educate their students. As Derrell Bradford explains in today’s editorial in the Press of Atlantic City, the kids who passed the SRA, but are now failing the AHSA in droves did just fine in school, including Camden High. A study undertaken by the DOE “discovered that 90 percent of SRA users took, and apparently passed, Algebra I. A stunning 86 percent took and passed Geometry, while 71 percent and 91 percent took and passed Algebra II and Biology, respectively.” Yet these same students can’t pass the HSPA or, it appears, a more rigorously-proctored AHSA. When queried about the tendency of students to get shunted through courses like a piece of mail through a pneumatic tube, a DOE official explained, “School districts can call a course anything they want.”

We’ve been calling a high school diploma anything we want. Accountability, anyone? Until we get there kids like Ms.Walden-Utley’s son will not only lack a high school diploma but also the scholastic knowledge it’s meant to celebrate.

What do you think?

One Comment

  1. I taught in an elementary school in Camden for two years. I worked my tail off to try and help my kids succeed. But there is absolutely no recourse for the ones who are already behind, because the principals don't want to deal with the fallout of holding students back. Social promotion is a MAJOR part of the problem. If you can't hold a kid back in 2nd grade, when do they catch up?

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