The following testimony was presented to the State Board of Education on April 15 by Stan Karp, Director of ELC’s Secondary Reform Project.

One year ago, the High School Redesign Steering Committee released the NJ Steps report with recommendations that formed the basis of the proposals now pending before the State Board.

As Board members know, ELC has been critical of these proposals, not because they propose higher standards for all students, but because they have not been linked to a credible plan to reach them. Without such a plan, tougher graduation requirements and more high stakes tests are more likely to reproduce the inequalities of the last century than prepare all students for the new one.

The Department contends that mandating higher standards will hold districts accountable for reaching them. Yet, historically, the State’s system of standards and tests has done little to close gaps in secondary achievement & outcomes. Last year, 74% of general education students in urban districts passed the language arts HSPA and only 56% passed math, compared to rates of 95% and 89% in other NJ districts. Urban graduation rates and college participation levels are well below state averages. Real dropout rates are alarmingly high. Today there are nearly 100,000 young people in NJ between the ages of 18-24 not in school & not working, a number that rose over 33% between 2002 & 2006. [NJ High School Graduation Campaign fact sheet, 2008]

Yet the Department’s proposals do not address the most pressing issue any statewide secondary reform effort must face: How will reform help schools & students that aren’t meeting current standards to meet tougher ones?

The State’s ill-advised retreat from Abbott commitments and the imposition of the SFRA will mean major budget cuts in NJ’s largest urban districts. Yet the Department insists “there is no reason to anticipate that such curricular modifications would involve increased expenditures for school districts.” This assertion remains unsupported by any study of what it will take to help all students succeed at higher academic levels.

The real issue is creating the capacity to deliver high academic standards to all students. In low performing urban middle and high schools, this requires a challenging, collaborative process to transform school climate, professional practice, community relations and student engagement. The Department insists that it seeks such “secondary transformation.” Yet the plans before you are all “rigor” with little reform and no new resources. They focus almost exclusively on course content requirements and end of course exams while the reforms and resources needed to promote deep “secondary transformation” are missing or weak.

The latest example is the personalized student learning plans. These were originally proposed for all students in grades 6-12 as a way to provide individualized support for higher academic performance. Recently, they’ve been reduced to a poorly-supported pilot in 15 schools.

Even more relevant in this regard is the Department’s fading support for the Secondary Education Initiative (SEI). Just a year ago, NJ Steps described SEI as a key secondary education redesign initiative designed to improve teaching and learning in the state’s lowest performing middle and high schools (grades 6 through 12)….As part of this initiative, districts have been working to create smaller learning communities within large urban middle and high schools, implement rigorous curriculum, and ensure that every student receives regular, personalized attention from at least one adult professional. With the implementation of a new school funding formula, this reform will be expanded to all secondary schools in New Jersey. [NJ Steps, p. 25 emphasis added]

Yet, over the past year, as the Department rolled out its high profile campaign for “secondary transformation,” support for SEI has virtually disappeared. Last June, the SFRA regulations watered down SEI requirements. SEI’s well-attended network meetings were abruptly discontinued. The consultant contracts to provide technical assistance to districts were allowed to expire. Department personnel providing implementation support for SEI were released or reassigned. The district pilots designed to test and modify the reforms were never conducted. A research and evaluation plan required by regulation was never developed. The SEI Advisory Committee was disbanded, while a new Secondary Advisory committee required by the SFRA regulations was never convened.

This pattern reflects a familiar cycle of “here today, gone tomorrow” reform initiatives that begin with grand promise, but in the end, leave behind only more standards, more tests and more of the same real gaps in achievement and opportunity.

If the Board adopts these proposals, the need for a targeted urban secondary reform initiative will be more urgent than ever. The High School Redesign and NJ HS Graduation campaigns have underscored the high costs of secondary school failure. The Obama administration has made reducing dropouts and increasing college participation national priorities. Large increases in stimulus funds, Title I funds, and innovation funds could be tapped for a renewed reform effort. If the Department is really committed to a process of “secondary transformation” that improves outcomes for all students, we need initiatives that focus on the large comprehensive high schools where the majority of our urban secondary students are and will remain.

Accordingly, along with ELC’s previous recommendations of an opportunity to learn guarantee for students before any new graduation tests are imposed, and a public evaluation of the Phase I mandates before Phases II & III are implemented, we urge the Board and the Department to revive support for the Secondary Education Initiative, convene the secondary advisory group required by the SFRA regulations and to engage parents, community, educators, and other stakeholders in a sustained effort to improve NJ’s secondary schools for all its students and communities.

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