Yesterday at the New Jersey Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee hearing, N.J. Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet responded to questions about Gov. Murphy’s school budget. But these weren’t the only queries he received. Senator Declan J. O’Scanlon asked Repollet directly why he instituted a questionable practice at Asbury Park School District which I revealed last month in this post, “Lamont Repollet and the 64 Floor: How Did He Raise Asbury Park’s Graduation Rate? Let’s Do the Math.”
My information for that post came from former and current staff members who remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation. I’m glad they don’t have to be afraid anymore. At this hearing Repollet confirmed everything they told me: The 64 Floor allowed Asbury Park to “dramatically” raise its high school graduation rate during Repollet’s tenure there — in fact, that’s one of the reasons cited by Gov. Phil Murphy for choosing Repollet — by making it impossible for students to fail courses.
Why is this important? Because our Commissioner of Education is trying to implement a version of The 64 Floor statewide. I keep coming back to something a DOE staffer told me: While at a meeting discussing testing, Repollet said that one of the reasons he wanted to reduce standardized assessments was that he “didn’t think it was good for the self-esteem of students to keep failing test after test that they already knew they would fail.” Talk about soft bigotry of low expectations!
You can listen/watch to the the hearing here. The part about the 64 Floor starts at about 1:18. I’ve also transcribed it below. (I did it myself so I may have missed a word here or there but it’s accurate.) Any emphases are my own and I’ve inserted a few comments using  marks. I have a call in to Senator O’Scanlon. If he reaches me after this post is up I’ll update. And, of course, Dr. Repollet is invited to respond as well.
Here’s the transcription of The 64 Floor portion of the hearing. Then I’ll have a few comments.
Senator O’Scanlon: I get there are schools that have dramatically higher needs, I’m talking about your Asbury Parks, your Patersons, your Newarks. There’s a justification that they get higher funds. But out of concern for these schools and out of concern also for taxpayers, wanting to ensure that their tax dollars are allocated wisely, there seems to be dramatic underperformance. And occasionally charter schools, which have the same demographics as these districts, manage to outperform district schools.
So what I want to get at is how do we fix that and, you and I have spoken briefly about this, I want to give you a chance to comment, this has been out there — this 64 Floor thing. [Repollet chuckles.] I want to give you a chance to respond, it’s been out there simmering. But what I really want to get at is whether we’re serving these kids well, whether we’re serving taxpayers well, that we’re investing their dollars in a way that best serves these kids, that gives them the best shot at a long and prosperous life coming out of school. So I’ll ask you to comment on the proficiency versus graduation rates. With a proficiency rate of 15 percent and a graduation rate of over 80 percent [these are Asbury Park’s numbers], what does that tell us? Should we be worried?
Dr.Repollet: Okay, so that’s a lot.
[Lengthy discussion of the Adequacy Budget and the Funding Formula; you can listen at your leisure. Repollet continues,]
Let’s look at equity
As we start to look at equity, you can’t really look at students from different locations, in different districts, in different zip codes the same. People may say it is but that’s equal, it’s not equity. There are a lot of variables that go into place. As we look at our [school funding] formula, that formula is weighted to ensure equity. You have at-risk kids, you have special education, you have a lot of things that define that student. If you look at one district in the suburbs, one district in an urban community, one district in a rural community, you might have differences. There’s 15,000 students in each district but the money that comes out is totally different. As you look at our formula it is one of the most equitable school formulas in the country.
Now let’s look back at proficiency versus graduation rate. So we understand our graduation requirements, right? We have assessments, right, but with assessments we have multiple tools. With assessments if you don’t meet the students needs you have multiple assessments, you have multiple pathways, you have alternative pathways. You have the SAT, the PSAT, all those batteries of assessment. You also have the portfolio assessment, that’s another equity piece.
But if you look at why you have 10 to 20 percent proficiency rates, let’s take the state of New Jersey. If you look in the state of New Jersey 27 percent of our students graduated by passing the [PARCC/state standardized annual] assessment — the other 73% graduated in a couple of ways, whether it be alternative assessments, portfolios, or other ways.
So you look at this. You are going to say that we have 170 days of the school year [sic: 180] and and we have one assessment and 73 percent of our kids are not graduating? That’s not fair, that’s not equitable.
And so you have a district, and I’m going to use Asbury Park as an example and I can go back and defend my record as a superintendent there. When I took over the job we were at 49 percent graduation rate. Our kids are reading two or three reading levels below [grade level]. As you change the organization and develop the organization you put new systems in place so that when I’m looking at the graduation rate and I’m going to go on the record here, the graduation rate is a calculation, you look at the cohort of students.
If you look at a district with a big increase in graduation rate, you have to look at the individual year. You have to look at that class throughout. With Asbury Park as an example, you have 100 kids in a graduating year. You have to follow the kids throughout. Now if a kid transfers, guess what, if he goes from school A to school B, they get credit for that kid.
So the graduation rate can fluctuate. If a district says it goes from a graduation rate of 49 percent to a grad rate of 83 percent I have to start looking at the students you’re questioning. Because we know that in certain communities you wouldn’t have those questions. But we understand that in certain communities the work we do we must do it better at times, we must be sure we have evidence. So to have a district be penalized because their student achievement is lagging behind their other achievement, I’m sorry, that’s equity. Because, you know, the hardest thing you can do is increase student achievement. The easiest thing you can do, I can say this as a former high school principal, is change the graduation rate. Because that’s a yearly thing. But when you have systemic low student achievement it takes years, you have to get kids from a deficit situation, from a deficit mindset, to a positive.
[Goes into long criticism of New Jersey’s accountability system for districts called QSAC, which he says is unfair because it doesn’t account for growth. You either meet the metric or you don’t. Example from his testimony: “If you have curriculum in place you get a 1. If you don’t you get a 0. But what if I have half the curriculum in place? Why should I get a 0?”]
So to get back to The 64, there are different ways to have a grading system . Some districts have a policy where it’s 0 to 100. Some districts, they curve. Some districts use the A/B system, A is a 4, F is a zero.
So let’s go back to the Floor. Why is The 64 Floor needed? When I go back and talk about equity I’m going to tell you why a Floor is needed. Because at times grades can be used to weaponize. It’s a power thing.
Sometimes if you don’t like a child whatever, and I may get in trouble for saying this, if I don’t like the child then guess what, I can give that child a zero. Because if I give Lamont a zero, how will Lamont pass my class, he would every time have to get 100, he would have to be perfect. What message as educators are we sending to our kids if we tell them we have to be perfect? That’s not the lens through which I see education. I see education a little differently, right? So we have to make sure our grading systems are fair and equitable because at the college level if you have an A that’s a 4, it you an F, that’s a zero. But you can still pass the class because you average that out and that’s a C. So you still pass the class.
So when you have The Floor you kind of take away the power to weaponize grades and it becomes a fairer system. At Carteret [High School, where he was principal] I instituted a Floor. At Asbury Park I instituted a Floor because it needed to be equitable across the board. And as the Commissioner of Education and our Department moving forward and our Governor talks about a stronger and fairer New Jersey, well the fairer piece is equity and we will continue to operate so that our students don’t have just equal and not just access but have opportunities and that’s the equity piece.
Phew! So much to unpack! We’ll revisit this because, just as Repollet discusses the “lens” through which he sees education, his comments offer us a lens to view his initiatives at the State Department of Education, from the efforts to dismantle annual assessments (earlier in the hearing Senator Teresa Ruiz has some choice things to say about the current mess), to lowering standards, to our charter school law “review.”
Here are a few first take-aways:
*Asbury Park High School (and Carteret, it seems) do have policies, as described and documented for me by sources, that make it impossible for students to fail courses. Repollet calls it “equity.” I call it low expectations that forestall high school graduates from, as O’Scanlon puts it, getting their “best shot at a long and prosperous life coming out of school.”
*A primary reason for The 64 Floor is because Repollet doesn’t trust teachers. He says straightforwardly that they “weaponize grades.” It’s “a power thing,” he says. If a teacher doesn’t like Lamont, he or she will give them a zero. So the 64 Floor protects Lamont from bad teachers who abuse power. Why does our Commissioner have such a low opinion of teachers? Do NJEA leaders have any comment on this disrespect? (Also welcome!)
*Repollet charges that our standards are too high and the proof is that only 27 percent of students met high school diploma requirements by passing the PARCC. Here’s what he’s leaving out: Under the current regulations, students can use the SAT’s and ACT’s (as well as other standardized tests) to meet diploma requirements. So if I’m a high school junior or senior and I take the SAT or ACT and meet the required benchmarks, why would I take the PARCC test? It’s just redundant. Repollet is insinuating that 73 percent of NJ students can’t pass PARCC/NJ’s state standardized tests. But that’s simply untrue. They could have passed our ELA 10 and Algebra 1 but why bother? They already met graduation requirements.
*The Commissioner seems to imply (tell me in the comments if you think I’m wrong) that the 64 Floor is necessary because of racism. He tells Senator O’Scanlon, “because we know that in certain communities you wouldn’t have those questions. But we understand that in certain communities the work we do we must do it better at times, we must be sure we have evidence.” It’s a little unclear but my take is when Repollet says “certain communities” he’s contrasting largely white suburban districts with those like Asbury Park (or Paterson or Newark, to complete O’Scanlon’s list) where students are largely low-income and Black or brown. So The 64 Floor becomes, for him, a ticket to equity. It’s a moral decision (especially when you factor in those teachers who “weaponize grades”).
But that’s a perversion of equity, which is supposed to be giving everyone what they need to be successful. Repollet appears to have a different definition for “success” for Asbury Park students (Paterson, Newark), and so he subverts the system by making it impossible to fail.
That’s not equity. That’s fatalism. And not what I want from our state education leader.