Chris Cerf is the former superintendent of Newark Public Schools and the former New Jersey commissioner of education. He serves on the board of ExcelinEd, a national nonprofit focused on state-based education policy.
The New Jersey Board of Education decided by a 1-vote margin last week to lower the minimum passing score on the state’s high school graduation test.
In four words, here’s what that decision means for families across our state: Expect less, get less.
For decades, no matter whether Democrats or Republicans were in charge, our elected officials have agreed that the state should set high standards for academic achievement — standards that correlate with being truly prepared for success in life.
This decision represents a stunning abandonment of that principle.
It also undermines the critical goal of equity. One board member who supported lowering the passing score suggested that it was “unfair” to “Black and Latino students” to require underperforming students to demonstrate a higher level of proficiency in reading and math before graduating. This gets it exactly backward. Every student, regardless of race or economic circumstances, should be launched into adulthood ready for success.
For too many years, our education system — sometimes subtly and sometimes more explicitly — set lower academic expectations for many students of color or those born into poverty. Holding all students to high and equal expectations is a core purpose of public education. The State Board’s decision, made at the behest of Gov. Phil Murphy, is directly contrary to this fundamental value.
So what is the justification for lowering the passing cut score in reading and math? It is certainly not that the state is achieving at a level that would somehow support lowering the bar. New Jersey rightly views itself as one of the top school systems in the country. In recent years, however, the trend line has had a decidedly downward trajectory.
With scores in both math and reading declining on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP), I applaud our efforts to give our great teachers the tools they need to help their students succeed. It is critical, however, that we also double down, not let up, on our academic expectations.
More broadly, while “accountability” seemingly has fallen out of favor in some political circles, setting high standards without honestly measuring whether they are being met is flatly inconsistent with the best interest of students.
What’s the real motive behind the change? The answer is in the numbers. Under the prior passing score, 39% of students would be “graduation ready” in reading and 49.5% in math. With the decision to reduce the required score, the numbers would leap to 80% in reading and 56.5% in math.
There may be superficial political value in this statistical parlor trick, but it comes at the expense of New Jersey students.