Opinion: High School Proficiency Assessment fails to adequately measure N.J. students

July 10, 2011

Every year, New Jersey juniors spend several days taking the HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment), a prerequisite for graduation. As with most other indicators of instruction, results of the HSPA demonstrate the glaring inequities in our education system.

Whether looked at through the lens of geography, race or income, the range of scores is stark. What makes matters worse is the fact that the HSPA, seen as an assessment of student readiness for life beyond high school, of skills and of what students “learned” in school, is an absolute fraud and an abject failure in meeting its putative objectives. Simply put, we need to scrap the assessment, salvage what we can and design one that shows kids are prepared for life beyond high school.

According to the New Jersey Department of Education’s “Guide to the HSPA,” the assessment “requires all students to demonstrate mastery of skills needed to function politically, economically, and socially in a democratic society.” But anyone making an honest review of the assessment will conclude there is a total disconnect between it and these goals. The HSPA is supposedly aligned with New Jersey’s Core Curriculum Content Standards, which include language arts, mathematics, science, visual and performing arts, health and physical education, technology, world languages, social studies, and 21st-century life and careers. Is there some reason most of these required subjects are absent from the HSPA? Is it not important that our youth demonstrate proficiency in these areas, too? If not, why have the standards at all?

Even though the state has done an admirable job trying to streamline the “cumulative progress indicators” delineated in the NJCCCS, the reality is that we are “requiring” our students to learn too much. The key word here is “learn.” Even if all of these indicators were introduced to students, were they really taught, or more important, “learned”? The constraints of time make learning, and assessing that learning, extremely problematic. In a state that touts ideas such as individualized instruction and alternative assessments, there is just no way that students are learning all that we are requiring.

What I suggest is a drastic diminution and then broadening in what we believe kids must know as a condition of graduation. What I envision would be in essence a “citizenship test” akin to what people take to become naturalized citizens. High school graduates are very much like naturalized citizens; they are entering adulthood in a democratic society whose vitality is a direct function of its individuals’ ability to understand the contemporary issues, institutions and historical underpinnings of our culture. Why shouldn’t we make sure students know about proper diet and nutrition, global warming, fiscal and monetary policy, constitutional law, balancing a checkbook, understanding a contract, or evaluating a survey or poll?

U.S. foreign policy is the most important influence on international relations on the world stage. Shouldn’t our graduates be able to identify the countries of the Middle East, explain why the India-Pakistan border is perhaps the most dangerous on Earth, reflect on the significance of World War II or describe the political significance of statesmen such as FDR and Reagan? Shouldn’t a well-rounded high school graduate know what jazz and Impressionism are?

Obviously, we can’t let a graduation assessment turn into a “game show” of random facts, but there is content beyond mathematics and “language arts literacy” that our graduates must demonstrate they know. It is admittedly difficult to distinguish between what we would like our graduates to know and what they must know, but it can be done.

A comprehensive graduation assessment, one that touches on all the Core Curriculum Content areas, will fulfill the Department of Education’s goals of having our students demonstrate mastery of the skills needed to “function politically, economically, and socially in a democratic society.” If they are going to master the skills, don’t we also need to make sure they have mastered the content? Moreover, it is eminently possible to assess those standards and integrate them into the reading and writing sections of the current HSPA.

A collateral benefit of this change to the HSPA and the drastic reduction in required “indicators of progress” is that it will free up teachers to take a more entrepreneurial approach to their profession, designing courses that reflect their personal passions and expertise in their general content areas. “Teaching to the test” will be replaced by more inspired instruction as educators are freed from the constraints of our current core standards.

Our students in the inner city, struggling to meet proficiency standards in the current formulation of the HSPA, will be the greatest beneficiaries of a new HSPA. The current assessment is unfair and fails to meet the state’s own objectives. It is not aligned to all of New Jersey’s Core Curriculum Content Standards and, most important, it does not test students on the things they should know to be actively engaged in our democracy and free market economy. It is time for a change.