New Jersey's Graduation Rate, Once Best in the Nation, Drops Dramatically

Leslie Brody | The Record

For years, New Jersey has boasted one of the highest graduation rates in the country. But the Garden State failed to crack the top 10 under a new, more uniform accounting system required by the federal government.

With 83 percent of freshmen who entered high school in 2007 getting diplomas in four years, New Jersey tied with six other states for 12th place, according to federal data released this week for the Class of 2011. Iowa was first, with 88 percent, followed closely by Vermont and Wisconsin.

Leaders in New Jersey education circles, such as teachers’ union officials and members of the New Jersey School Boards Association, previously based their claim that the Garden State had an exceptionally high graduation rate on data from outside groups. Education Week magazine’s Diplomas Count project, for example, rated the state No. 1 last year.

The variety of ways that states calculated graduation rates in the past made it hard to compare them. But the U.S. Department of Education required states to use a new reporting method by this year to promote accountability, with the goal of finding ways to keep students from dropping out.

The new method counts only students who receive diplomas in four years. It also considers teenagers to be dropouts if districts cannot document that they enrolled in another school, or that they died.

Even under the new method, New Jersey remains near the top. Its pockets of poverty with chronically struggling schools — such as Paterson, where 64 percent of students who entered high school in 2007 earned a diploma in four years — drag down the overall rate.

New Jersey officials reported in May that the state’s graduation rate had slipped to 83 percent from 95 percent for the class of 2010 as measured under the previous reporting method. The federal chart is the first to put New Jersey’s new rate into national context.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said he wasn’t concerned about New Jersey’s place in the new rankings.

“I’m only concerned when we’re not counting in a consistent, dependable way that allows us to really know what the truth is,” he said. “I’m not sure there is any material difference between being in the top 12 versus the top eight. It shows New Jersey is doing extremely well compared to the rest of the nation, and has significant room to improve.”

Even with the more reliable statistics, he noted, there was only a “patina of comparability” because some states had more rigorous graduation requirements than others. Tennessee, for example, had a higher graduation rate than New Jersey, but its students performed worse on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, widely considered the best standard for measuring students’ skills. New Jersey typically earns some of the very top scores on those tests, along with Massachusetts, which also reported an 83 percent graduation rate.

The District of Columbia ranked lowest — in 49th place — on the list with a graduation rate of 59 percent, preceded by the Bureau of Indian Education, with 61 percent, and Nevada, with 62 percent. The rankings did not include data from Idaho, Kentucky, Oklahoma or Puerto Rico.

Several leaders in New Jersey education circles said it would take time to analyze to what degree the rankings reflect differences among states in demographics or instructional practices, or statistical blips as everyone adjusted to the new format.

Achievement gaps

The federal data shows significant achievement gaps in nearly every state.

New Jersey’s Asian students (with a 93 percent graduation rate) and white students (90 percent) were among the most successful, compared to their counterparts in other states. Meanwhile black students (69 percent), Hispanics (73 percent) and poor students (71 percent) were roughly middle of the pack compared to their peers elsewhere.

New Jersey used to base its graduation data largely on reports from districts of how many students declared they were quitting school. A more sophisticated state database that tracks individual students makes the more accurate numbers possible. Now the graduation rate counts only students who receive standard diplomas within four years. Students are considered dropouts if they don’t show up at school and can’t be traced.

Under the new rules, graduation rates in New Jersey slipped the most in urban areas with large numbers of immigrants and transient students, whose moves can be hard to document, and special-needs students, who often take longer than four years to finish high school.

Raymond Wiss, a board member in the Northern Valley Regional School District and the immediate past president of the New Jersey School Boards Association, said the state’s graduation rate might improve as districts become more adept at tracking students in the new state database. In such a diverse state, he said, it would take time to see if this is a “temporary glitch based on a changed formula or something we should sit up and take notice of.”

“You have to give it a little time to see how it balances out in three years,” said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which represents about 100 New Jersey school districts, mostly in the suburbs. “I hope people don’t jump to conclusions going out the gate if we’re only in the first turn on the racetrack now.’’

Cerf, the education commissioner, said data from the Class of 2012, to be finalized in coming months, suggest the official rate may change again as “districts take the reporting requirements more seriously.”

He also predicted that New Jersey’s graduation rate will sink further in the coming years as the state makes its requirements for earning diplomas more demanding.

“We have high standards in New Jersey,” he said, “but not high enough because so many kids who graduate are still not prepared to take courses at the next level.” 

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