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Roundtable: NJ Schools Aren’t Making the Grade

Forum participants tackle problem of graduates ill-prepared for college, work force.

The problem facing Jersey’s high schools was easier to agree upon. Agreeing on a solution was more elusive.

Top educators and advocates met Friday as part of NJ Spotlight’s Roundtable Series to discuss the growing consensus that high schools in New Jersey – if not nationwide – are not adequately preparing all students for college and careers.

Even in higher performing suburban schools, business leaders see too many students without the necessary skills.

One of the panel members was Jeffrey Scheininger, board chairman for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and owner of a small tubing manufacturer in Linden.

“Let me tell what has happened the last couple of years as my initial work force has moved into retirement,” Sheininger said.

“I ran an ad for an entry level manufacturing position,” he said. “Of 100 applicants who were self-described as high school graduates, two were able to pass an elementary arithmetic test…They couldn’t read a ruler. It was stunning.”

But during the forum discussion held before about 100 people at the Masonic Temple in Trenton, the trickier topic was what to do about it.

For much of the last two decades, a push has been under way to raise standards and impose new tests that would place higher expectations on schools and students.

The latest example is the nationally-developed Common Core State Standards, which New Jersey has joined, along with new online assessments that elementary school and high school students will need to pass.

Earlier this year, a task force of educators and others appointed by Gov. Chris Christie proposed that New Jersey adopt the Common Core and a series of new subject tests for high school students developed by a national consortium known as Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. (PARCC).

The PARCC tests would be phased in over the next several years, with this year’s fifth-graders likely to be the first to take the full battery of tests in high school. The task force stopped short of specifying how many of the tests should be required for graduation.

On Friday, state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said the testing would provide a valuable measure of college and career readiness that isn’t measured accurately by the state’s High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA). The HSPA testing in language arts and math is given in 11th grade, with two chances for retesting and an alternative test for those who still do not pass.

“We are graduating children in high schools by pretty high rates, about 83 percent by new federal standards, and all have passed certain requirements and the HSPA in particular,” he said.

“The problem is a very material percentage of them, notwithstanding they have completed requirements of graduation, are in fact not college- and career-ready. Something like 90 percent of students at Bergen Community or Essex Community need remediation and not ready to take college-level courses.”

Also on the panel was Raritan Valley Community College President Casey Crabill, who said the high remediation rates were only hurting the students themselves.

“They are ill-prepared, and they don’t know it,” Crabill said. “You spend about six months in remedial education trying to convince them that this really will help. For many of them, it is discouraging. They come to us because they want to study automotive tech, but they don't have the skills to read the textbook.”

For some of the educators on the panel, the question was not whether change was needed but how to do it, how quickly, and with what resources.

Continue reading on NJSpotlight.com.

NJ Spotlight is an issue-driven news website that provides critical insight to New Jersey’s communities and businesses. It is non-partisan, independent, policy-centered and community-minded.

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