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Earlier this year U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona warned state education departments throughout the country they must keep academic standards high instead of creating the pretense that current levels of student proficiency are acceptable.
“We’re better than that,” lectured Cardona. “Our children deserve better than that. The first area where we must raise the bar is academic excellence. As much as [the student learning crisis] is about recovery, it’s also about setting higher standards for academic success in reading and mathematics.”
The New Jersey Department of Education is going in the opposite direction.
According to sources, on the morning of Wednesday, April 5th during the State Board of Education’s public meeting, Gov. Phil Murphy’s Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan will propose that New Jersey lower the bar for academic excellence and set lower standards in reading and mathematics—precisely what Sec. Cardona’s warns state departments against.
Two questions: How and Why:
The “how” is by lowering the “cut score”—the number of points students need to reach “proficiency” on our new high school graduation assessment, NJGPA — from its current 750, which means “meets expectations,” to 725, which means “partially meets expectations.”
Back in February 2022, DOE staffers badly wanted the State Board to set the cut score on the NJGPA at 725. When word leaked of this plan, Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, then head of the Senate Education Committee, said publicly that 725 “makes me cringe” because it sets such low expectations for student proficiency.
During that meeting, various State Board members pressed DOE staff for answers about how these numbers correlate with student learning. Member Mary Beth Berry: “What does 725 mean in terms of proficiency? I’m seeing it’s equivalent to ‘partially meets expectations.’ I’m really struggling…I can’t make an informed decision on this [and] we need to aim higher.” Vice President Andrew Mulvihill: “How many questions would you have to get right to make a 725? Can you give me some sort of idea? Is it 10% or 90%? Assistant Commissioner Gilbert Gonzalez: “I cannot answer your question.”
In the end, the Board passed an amendment rejecting the DOE’s 725 cut score and voted to raise it to 750. Their logic: Students should have to “meet expectations” in reading and math to graduate from high school. (Students who don’t score high enough have a long list of alternative assessments to choose from. Everyone graduates from high school, regardless of their NJGPA score, especially since the DOE changed the definition of a NJ high school diploma from “college and career-ready” to the tautological “high school graduation-ready.”)
Now the results of the NJGPA clearly show us that 39.4% of NJ 11th graders reached proficiency in reading (or ELA) and 49.4% reached proficiency in math. That’s politically unpalatable for a Governor who has expectations of higher office, as well as the NJEA which still claims on its website, NJ is “the #1 public education system in the country.” And, as the testing date for NJGPA nears, the DOE is trying once again to privilege politics over honesty.
Twenty-five points may seem trivial but it’s not: the state estimates lowering the cut score will raise proficiency rates to 81% in reading and 56.5% in math. But this will place NJ’s high school test at odds with other highly-regarded assessments, especially the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often referred to as “America’s Report Card” and the “gold standard” for quantifying student proficiency.
When there is a discrepancy between NAEP and state levels of proficiency, that’s called the “Honesty Gap.”
So let’s check it out: In 2022, NAEP tested representative samples of 4th and 8th grade students as a way to reliably gauge Covid-induced learning loss. New Jersey’s NAEP profile shows 41.5% of 8th graders are proficient in reading and 33% in math.
In other words, the most highly-rated assessment in the country tells us the 750 cut score on NJGPA is an honest depiction of student proficiency.
Yet the DOE is choosing to be dishonest to families by inflating proficiency rates. (Note: Rampant grade inflation further inflames the dishonesty.)
Now we come to the why:
There’s no getting around it: public education is political. As Gov. Phil Murphy sets himself up for a presidential run, he’s got to counter the bad news on NJ student learning loss.
Huge drops for MA, NJ and MD, which pride themselves on being national leaders. https://t.co/SrWFbQfQw1
— Marc Porter Magee 🎓 (@marcportermagee) October 24, 2022
What better way than to lower standards? Anyway, how many people study NAEP scores? And, sure, why would the state want to advertise that fewer than four in 10 NJ high school graduates are proficient in math? Lowering the cut score makes perfect political sense.
Yet while this may benefit Murphy/NJEA, it will come at great cost to students and their parents. Let’s make this a teachable moment and look at the state of Virginia, whose public schools are rated #4 in the country and provides an example of what happens when state education departments lowers standards.
According to a report issued by the VA’s State Education Department, in 2017 the State Board voted to lower the cut scores on state assessments so more students would test as proficient in math and reading, just like New Jersey’s DOE wants to do. Ignoring the Honesty Gap, state tests showed 75% of students were proficient in reading, even though the proficiency level on NAEP was 33%.
This led to three consequences:
- Lack of Transparency: Parents were in the dark about their children’s academic proficiency. There was a “diminished awareness and urgency” for students had suffered pandemic learning loss, which hit low-income children hardest.
- Lower achievement: After the state lowered cut scores, reading scores declined, with Virginia students posting “statistically significant declines” in reading and math. Virginia’s rank on AP tests fell from 3d to 9th in the country.
- Leaving Public Schools: The number of home-schoolers spiked because “Virginia parents are taking their kids out of public schools.”
The lesson? Lowering standards and definitions of proficiency hurts students, parents, and the state school system.
What can we learn from other highly-ranked school systems?
In Massachusetts, ranked #1 in the nation, last August the State Board voted to raise the cut score for the high school graduation test:
JUST NOW: State education board votes to raise MCAS scores needed to graduate high school in Massachusetts beginning with class of 2026. #wcvb
— David Bienick (@BienickWCVB) August 15, 2022
Why? State Board member Matt Hills: “There is a relationship between achieving the graduation requirement and what happens to the rest of your life.”
Connecticut, ranked #2, is one of the few states to retain the standardized assessments strictly aligned with the Common Core. Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker didn’t respond to sharply lower test scores caused by pandemic-induced learning loss by suggesting lowering standards. Instead, she spoke honestly to families: “student achievement still lags the pre-pandemic levels,” she said. Maryland, ranked #5, isn’t lowering cut scores either.
But New Jersey is on the cusp of taking the easy way out by lying to families and creating the pretense that our students are “high school graduation-ready,” proficiency levels be damned. Maybe on Wednesday morning the State Board will heed Sec’s. Cardona’s counsel by maintaining cut scores that honestly reflect the level of student learning, political pressure be damned.