The JerseyCAN team recently released a new report: The Real Test: Are We Committed to Excellence and Equity in New Jersey? Our report examines the success that New Jersey has experienced in adopting a meaningful assessment that is aligned to our high academic standards and makes the case that, in this pivotal moment, we need to ensure that the promising progress continues despite a variety of political headwinds.
There are important implications here for other states across the country. JerseyCAN’s latest report shares significant evidence that, at a time when so many other states are retreating from more rigorous academic standards and assessments, New Jersey has remained committed to the promise that all students can succeed at high levels. Yet while we have maintained consistent goalposts for students and educators over the past four years, troubling equity gaps remain. We still have far to go if positive trends are to be extended to all of New Jersey’s students.
New Jersey students have shown significant improvements in English Language Arts (ELA) and math across all grade levels since we adopted higher expectations for student learning and implemented a more challenging exam. These figures are more than just percentages — they are students:
- 110,000 more students meeting or exceeding grade level expectations in ELA across the grades from 2015-2018; and
- 85,000 more students meeting or exceeding expectations in math across the grades from 2015-2018
Our year over year academic growth is buttressed by the fact that New Jersey is also closing the achievement gap. Indeed, our state is leading the nation in closing ELA achievement gaps for African American and Hispanic students since 2015. We admit, however, that we still have far to go in the state to ensure every student has both an equitable and an excellent education.
Figure 8 from the report forces us to face uncomfortable questions, especially within districts that hold some of our most traditionally underserved students. How can roughly 70 percent to 85 percent of students graduate from high school when only 10 percent to 30 percent of those same students are meeting academic expectations or college and career benchmarks in English language arts and math? What does a New Jersey high school diploma mean for those students? Are they truly being set up for future life success if they have a diploma but have not demonstrated mastery of high school content?
This disparity in rates is a stark example of why we need objective and standardized measures for student achievement. While we can and should celebrate New Jersey’s status as a leading state for many students, the real test before us is whether we remain committed to having an objective snapshot of academic progress to learn how to mitigate inequities and become a leading state for all our students.
The core finding: objectivity matters
The bottom line is that New Jersey is on the right track. Even in schools and districts where major gaps exist, we are equipped with more data than ever before to inform decisions about how to better support the educators and students who need it most. Here are a few things the data has shown us:
Maintaining our high standards and aligned assessment had resulted in significant growth for New Jersey students since 2014. As one of the states that has committed to keeping both high standards and a rigorous assessment in place despite political opposition, New Jersey is showing steady year-after-year gains.
Rigorous assessments are critical to ensuring parents, schools and policy-makers have objective data about student performance on an assessment aligned to their state’s standards. Whenever we move to more subjective measures for determining if our schools are truly working on behalf of their students, such as graduation rates, we are telling an incomplete story – and one that paints a far rosier picture than reality.
New Jersey should be evolving and constantly looking for new ways to put its students on multiple pathways to success. However, in doing so, it is important to not lose sight of maintaining objective measures that tell us the truth of student academic performance. Teachers and school leaders need data to understand where students are struggling to provide necessary interventions. Employers and higher education leaders need evidence that those entering their doors have met certain standards and are prepared for their next stage of life. Parents need information to help them support their students at home. Assessments provide one important source of information about how our education system is working. A move away from transparency and high expectations puts New Jersey at risk of widening the disconnect between a high school graduate and a successful college-goer or employee.
Looking ahead: A renewed commitment to excellence and equity for all students in New Jersey
New Jersey has seen significant gains in academic achievement since 2015 including for racial and economic subgroups. However, without consistent, transparent information about the disparities that still exist, New Jersey will not be able to equitably serve its students. These gaps remind us that our work is not finished.