Newark, NJ — June 9, 2011

Education Week’s latest Diplomas Count report on high school graduation rates contains good news about NJ public schools. It’s a sharp contrast to the drumbeat of negativity about public education that’s been coming from Governor Chris Christie in recent months.

The report showed that NJ has the highest overall graduation rate in the country at 87%. The state’s graduation rate is more than 15 points above the national average and includes the No. 1 rate for white students (91%), the No. 1 rate for Hispanic students (68%), and the No. 2 rate for African American students (73%).

Moreover, while graduation rate formulas vary widely and often produce conflicting numbers, NJ’s success on this key indicator was confirmed by another recent study from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which puts NJ’s rate at 85%, and by the NJ Department of Education’s own data, which found a 96% rate.

The data contradicts the narrative of failure used by Governor Christie to promote the test-based merit pay, and school closings, none of which have any record of success as strategies for improving schools or closing achievement gaps. Instead the data highlights the need to address gaps in opportunity and performance with proven, research-based programs, particularly in high needs schools.

Overall, NJ’s high graduation rates for students of color (compared to other states) are the result of strong educational programs, high quality early education, the existence of multiple pathways to a diploma, and the relatively high levels of equity in NJ’s system of school funding. But persistent gaps across student sub-groups and communities underscore the continued need for targeted reform efforts, especially in urban middle and high schools.

The Christie Administration, however, has retreated from such efforts, including the Secondary Education Initiative, which promoted small learning communities in large comprehensive high schools, and the NJ High School Graduation Campaign, which mobilized broad-based statewide support for dropout prevention efforts.

Instead the Administration is pressing to lower qualifications for school leaders in high needs districts and to eliminate tenure and seniority, as well as compensation for advanced degrees for educators. These one-size-fits-all state mandates are not only unproven measures, they are likely to disrupt successful schools without improving struggling ones. The Administration has also threatened to close 200 “failing schools” and to introduce a new wave of standardized tests with high stakes for students, educators and districts.

Last June, NJDOE awarded twelve comprehensive “school improvement grants,” totaling $45.3 million, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Seven grants went to struggling high schools. But the need is much greater: 75 NJ high schools have not met NCLB benchmarks for five or more years, and another 50 have not met benchmarks for 3-4 years. Fifty middle schools have similar status. Clearly, developing a new statewide secondary reform plan that builds upon recent reform initiatives remains an urgent priority.

Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf used the release of Diplomas Count to warn that with the implementation of a new graduation rate formula next year, “it is likely that the reported graduation rate will experience a decline.” The new calculation is expected to produce lower rates than NJDOE’s current data and more closely align with Diplomas Count and NCES statistics. But while more accurate and transparent graduation data is long overdue, new methods of calculating data will not improve education opportunities and outcomes on the ground.

It’s time to end the “negative narrative” emanating from Trenton. New Jersey’s best-in-the-nation graduation rates are a cause for celebration and for a renewed effort to strengthen public schools for all students.

Education Law Center Press Contact:
Stan Karp
Director, Secondary Reform Project
voice: 973 624-1815 x28
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Press Contact:
Sharon Krengel
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications
973-624-1815, x240