Opinion: N.J. high school graduation rates do not provide real measure of educational success

June 22, 2011

A recent news report trumpeted the state’s highest-in-the-nation graduation rankings as proof of the excellence of New Jersey’s public education. It’s the perfect example of how the education establishment, often through its own research, can celebrate by using the wrong measures of success.

Success is not a high school diploma for every student. Rather, it is, at a minimum, that all graduating students demonstrate performance at grade level. And this should be attained within a school system run cost-effectively. Our educators should be delivering a quality product at lowest cost.

The award-winning documentary “Waiting for Superman” puts to shame the claims of excellence touted by the teachers’ union and others in the New Jersey education establishment. One wonders how many educators have seen it. By using performance metrics that actually measure academic achievement and cost-effectiveness and by observing student outcomes, the documentary shows clearly that a headline “87 percent of students earn high school diploma,“ even though correct, should be rewritten “given high school diploma”:

  • Large numbers of students with high school diplomas admitted to county and community colleges require remediation to pursue college-level courses, especially those requiring academic rigor, including math and science.
  • Only about half of students accepted to accredited public universities graduate in four years. Rates are close to those of big-time college football programs, which are so often criticized for the same results and shortcomings.
  • Millions of our young men and women cannot meet minimum requirements to enlist and serve in our all-volunteer military services. How can they “Be all (they) can be”?
  • There are at least 2 million job openings in our economy for which employers can find no qualified U.S. applicants.
  • Construction industry trade unions find that many of those with a high school diploma who seek apprenticeship cannot read training manuals, do simple calculations and make measurements.
  • Over the last 10 years, when costs of public education skyrocketed, especially salaries and benefits, the schools were nonetheless generously supported by taxpayers, who believed that funds were critically needed to improve outcomes “for our children.“ Unfortunately, student performance did not improve.
  • The cost to educate each public school graduate in New Jersey is unconscionable.

Based on my experience, schools in New Jersey get blue ribbons for their rates of graduation and, especially, for high admission rates to higher education. The real measures of success are high school students fully prepared for immediate employment and/or further education, lower college attrition rates, and reasonable cost to the taxpayer of each graduate — and non-graduate.