The annual report on New Jersey public-school test scores and graduation rates brought mostly good news Wednesday, with the 2011-2012 numbers up overall for high schools, less so for the lower grades, and all with the expected cautions and caveats.
It’s hard to draw a single conclusion from dozens of different grade-by-grade statistics released by the state each year, but much of the focus in the Christie administration’s presentation to the state Board of Education was on high-school graduation rates.
This was the second year of new methodology intended to more accurately track how many students entering high school actually graduated.
And, for all the worry that the change would send New Jersey’s historically highest-in-the-nation ranking plummeting, the state overall fared pretty well in posting a new graduation rate of about 86 percent for the Class of 2012, up from 83 percent in 2011.
That’s still down from graduation rates that have topped 90 percent in the past, and New Jersey no longer remains the nation’s highest among the 40-plus states that have moved to the new federally-mandated method for tracking graduates.
But it still kept the state at the high end with other comparable states in the Northeast, including New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, officials said.
Within the totals were some especially bright spots. Three-quarters of students with disabilities graduated within four years, the fourth-highest rate in the country, and three of the state’s most troubled districts – Newark, Trenton and Paterson – each saw gains as well. Newark’s graduation rate rose from 61 percent to almost 69 percent.
In addition, the state started tracking five-year graduation rates, with the five-year rate for the Class of 2011 rising from 83 percent to 86 percent one year later.
The positive news about graduation rates was coupled with continued upward trends in scores on the state’s High School Proficiency Assessments (HSPA), the required exit exam in language arts and math given to all juniors.
In 2012, 92.7 percent of juniors passed the HSPA language arts on the first try, up from 90.7 percent in 2011 and 87.4 in 2009, and 83.3 percent passed in math, also up slightly from 81 percent in 2009.
The state’s fledgling high-school biology test also continued to show gains, although at lower overall levels than the HSPA’s more comprehensive exam. Last year, 57 percent of those taking biology – mostly high school freshmen -- passed the state’s exam, more than double the 23 percent who passed two years ago.
But then there were the caveats.
The Christie administration has focused much of its school-reform strategy on lifting the lowest-achieving schools -- and the gaps remain wide and deep.
Even in the graduation statistics, the schools’ overall rates in graduating African-American and Hispanic students did not compare so well. While improved from 2011, the graduation rate for African-American students in the Class of 2012 was 75 percent and it was 77 percent for Hispanic students.
The gaps remained wide in NJASK as well. In both language arts and math, there was a difference of as much as 30 percent in the passing rates of white students and African-American or Hispanic students.
Over the last three years, only the language scores on the HSPA showed some significant narrowing of achievement differences.
Overall, elementary and middle-school scores on the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJASK) stay largely flat compared to the previous year. In the aggregate for the tests given from 3rd through 8th grades, 65 percent passed in language arts and 75 percent passed in math, both representing very slight drops from 2011.
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