by Jay Jefferson Cooke
on on Sunday, February 28, 2016

There are more than 2,500 schools in nearly 600 school districts in the state of New Jersey. There are more than 1.37 million students enrolled in public schools in the state. There are more than 113,000 teachers charged with the future of these students.

The numbers are astounding. The job of preparing these students is daunting.

How do you prepare them? How do you evaluate them? How do you evaluate the preparation?

According to the United States Census Bureau, individuals achieve the following degree levels earned the following median annual salaries: PhD’s, $100,000 or more; master’s, $63,000; bachelor’s, $55,700; associate’s, $42,000; high school diploma, $32,500. In addition, on average, bachelor’s degree holders earn about $2.3 million over their lifetime, while those with advanced degrees, including master’s, doctoral and professional degrees earning $2.7 million, $3.2 million and $3.7 million, respectively.

That said, a college education can be a critical factor to attaining career success.

In New Jersey, the four-year graduation rate for high-school students is 87.5 percent as of 2012-2013, the most recent year in which New Jersey Department of Education statistics are available.

Tests are the standard

The state Department of Education recently released more detailed data on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, showing how districts, schools and students in specific subgroups performed on the exams, which are critical in the evaluation for college acceptance. The test was administered for the first time last spring to students in grades 3 to 11 in math and language arts.

According to, most states voluntarily adopted new, more rigorous academic standards in 2010 and 2011 and teachers have been using them in their daily instruction. As a result, states needed high-quality assessments aligned to those standards that would test students of all achievement levels on what they are learning. Many current state tests measure only lower-level skills. The new assessments serve as an “educational GPS system,” assess students’ current performance, and point the way to what students need to learn by graduation so they are ready for college and/or a career.

But a new study casts a shadow on the prospects of New Jersey students.

Many Garden State residents think that poor-performing schools are confined to low-income neighborhoods in the inner city. Yet according to a study from the Pacific Research Institute, the data show that public schools in New Jersey’s affluent suburbs are also failing. The study compiled SAT scores from predominantly middle-class high schools where at least 80 percent of students took the test. At nearly three in 10 schools, more than half of students failed to meet the college readiness benchmark score of 1550.

New Jersey’s middle schools are not doing much better. On the National Assessment of Education Progress, popularly known as the nation’s report card, almost half of middle- and upper-class eighth graders scored below proficiency in reading. More than 40 percent of these kids failed the math test.

And now for some bad news

“At least with regard to our study, a key problem for New Jersey has been the relative weakness of the state’s tests, such as the NJ ASK and the HPSA, when compared to the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam (NAEP). Most predominantly non-low-income schools in New Jersey showed high levels of student proficiency on the 2014 NJ ASK and the HPSA, which our study noted, while on the NAEP exam, significant proportions of non-low-income students failed score at proficiency,” said Lance Izumi, Koret senior fellow and senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

“For example, half of non-low-income New Jersey eighth-graders failed to score at the proficient level on the NAEP reading exam,” he said. “Also, as our study found, nearly three out of 10 predominantly non-low-income high schools in New Jersey had half or more of their SAT-takers failing to score at the college-readiness level recommended by the College Board. Many New Jersey parents, members of the public, and educators may be lulled into a false sense of complacency because of the high proficiency rates on the weak state tests, not realizing that there is a greater underperformance problem below the surface, as indicated by New Jersey’s results on national and college-readiness exams. That complacency would lessen pressure for a harder look at curricula, teaching methods, teacher quality and other factors that affect student achievement.”

Such a critical indictment of college preparation in the public schools should be alarming to anyone. A query to the New Jersey Department of Education, generated the following response:

“Please don’t think I’m trying to dodge your question, but there are numerous studies and reports that are issued throughout a given school year, but we typically don’t publicly debate or evaluate the reports,” said Michael Yaple, director of public information, New Jersey Department of Education.

But there are organizations that are anxious to weigh in.

An opposing viewpoint

“No, we do not agree with this so called ‘study.’ It was done by an ideological organization that openly advocates privatization of public education,” according to a spokesperson for Save Our Schools NJ, a grassroots, all-volunteer organization of parents and other public education supporters who believe that every child in New Jersey should have access to a high-quality public education. “On page 7 of the executive summary, this so called “study” states: ‘These results should cause middle-class New Jersey parents to re-think their views on the quality of their neighborhood public schools, and, consequently, to open their minds to other education options, choices and policy changes that would allow their children to escape underperforming schools and attend better-performing alternatives. Among these alternatives are a variety of types of school-choice programs that other states have enacted.’

“The alternatives presented are taxpayer-funded vouchers for private and religious education, which come out of the public-schools budgets and have been an absolutely failure academically in every state that has adopted them. Vouchers greatly increase segregation and inequality in K-12 education. Voucher schools generally underperform the public schools from which they draw their students. You can find more research on vouchers here: This so called study was funded by the ideologically extreme Arkansas Walton Family Foundation, which openly promotes privatization and vouchers. This is not a study, it is political dogma in the service of destroying public education.”

It is perhaps difficult to judge the quality or credibility of any study, when the true purpose of the study cannot be immediately detected. To be sure, there is wide disagreement about the credibility not only of studies but of the tests that students in New Jersey are taking.

But the Pacific Research Institute study does offer food for thought.

“It would be hard to dispute the data. Overall it does not surprise me,” said Janellen Duffy, executive director of JerseyCAN, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We have looked at the aggregate – you see some of the same patterns. There are some bright spots, but the overall conclusion is that there is much to do to better prepare our high-school students for college.

“We take a comparative view of college prep starting with prekindergarten. We think that the adoption of the assessment should not be the only answer or only measure of student preparation but a key component,” Duffy added. “Assessments must be aligned to new standards. We support the new PARCC assessment, so that corrections can be made along the way. (Some of the keys include) better investments in high-quality preschools, hiring and training of quality teachers. The talent pool (currently) is limited by residency requirements, teacher quality therefore is limited. Many things have to be evaluated in concert.

“We have to rise above this ‘us versus them’ rhetoric as far as public versus private or charter schools,” Duffy said. “We have high remedial rates in colleges and we must address that. We advocate for high quality education for all students.

Other measurements must be used

“We do not support just using standardized tests as only measure to evaluate students – you could look at other academic measures in terms of college development, social skills, extracurricular activities, etc. – but test scores should be one of the components.

But preparation, as Duffy said, is about more than tests.

“When you have significant percentages of students from non-low-income families failing to score at the proficient level in math and English on rigorous exams such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the SAT, then one must consider whether the instruction in the core subjects is as effective as it could be,” Izumi said. “Our study focused on student test proficiency and did not go into what caused proficiency problems, so the next step would be to investigate what may be the causes of non-proficiency among, for example, middle-class students.

“Even proponents of student testing do not say that test scores should be the sole indicator of student performance and potential,” Izumi said. “Many colleges and universities take a holistic view of student admission, looking at various factors in evaluating students. However, it is important to underscore that how students perform on exams such as the SAT is an important window into evaluating the potential of students. As our study points out, the College Board sets its college readiness scoring mark at 1550 on the SAT because their research shows that students scoring at that level have a 65 percent probability of obtaining a first-year college GPA of B- or higher. That is an important part of the puzzle when evaluating the potential success of students.”

Tips offered by Virginia Tech University, available at…), offer suggestions for improvement.

But perhaps impeding the success of New Jersey public school teachers and students are matters for the government.

“The $7 billion underfunding of our public school funding formula since Gov. Chris Christie came into office, interestingly, ($7 billion also is) the amount of our taxes that the governor has given to corporations in the form of corporate tax abatements,” is a serious problem, the Save Our Schools NJ spokesperson added. “Rather than spending time and money trying to improve standardized test-taking skills, we should be working to ensure that our public schools engage our children intellectually and instill in them a lifetime love of learning.”

Unfortunately, a number of students in New Jersey are concerned about their prospects and not satified with their public-school education and what some call an emphasis on standardized tests.

Many students are unwilling to discuss these issues on the record for fear of retaliation by teachers and school administrators. But some are willing to speak their mind.

Ashley Lynn Kiesel, a senior at Somerville High School, is very interested in college and has applied to Temple University in Philadelphia.

“I do not think that standardized tests show our preparedness at all because there was so much information that we haven’t even learned or haven’t been exposed to since we were in elementary school — like grammar. And with vocabulary, unless you read a dictionary all the time you are never going to know half of those words, which is unfair. And also, most students are extremely bad test-takers like me and that is a huge reason why people’s scores could be so bad. In my opinion i do not think a test like the SAT shows any of our preparedness for college at all,” Kiesel said.

The Somerville High senior feels her education has not properly prepared her for the standardized tests that evaluate your performance.

“What we learn in high school isn’t what is on these standardized tests so I had to go find a tutor to reteach everything I was suppose to know because I was not taught it, which is not fair,” she said. “For kids who can’t make into these high level math classes or English classes because apparently we aren’t smart enough based on a test makes us even more unprepared once we see information that we haven’t seen before.

“I think that there should be classes that will prepare us for college, like math classes we will need and instead of stupid extra classes,” Kiesel added. “We should have real classes and we should be taught (according to a curriculum) that will make the college transfer like transferring from elementary to middle school.”

Kiesel fears that college may be a tough adjustment since “teachers only do as much as they want just to get you to pass their class — they aren’t trying to prepare us, they are only trying to prepare us for their end of the year test to show the principal that they were doing something.

“And to be honest half the classes I took didn’t even prepare me for what I needed to know,” she said, “so how am I suppose to move on if I’m not ready?”


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