Certain school districts across the United States are doing exceptionally well at raising the academic achievement of African-American male students, a new study by the Schott Foundation for Public Education reports. But in singing the praises of monopoly public schools the study may overstate the successes of students in New Jersey, where minority students have been using a “special review assessment” (SRA) to avoid the state’s high school exit exam requirement.
The report, “Yes We Can: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males,” lauds New Jersey for raising academic attainment, singling out Newark’s schools for their high graduation rates and progress in closing the black-white achievement gap.
“New Jersey’s commitment to implement its Abbott plan and ensure equitable resources to all students proves that it can be done at the state level—as New Jersey is the only state with a significant Black male population with a greater than 65 percent high school graduation rate,” the reports notes.
The “Abbott plan” is the result of a series of state Supreme Court rulings in Abbott v. Burke, which require the state to equalize funding among urban and suburban school districts.
Special Review ‘a Scam’
Although the Schott report estimates the graduation rate for black male students in Newark stands at 75 percent, such figures may be inflated by the process though which students are deemed eligible for graduation.
Derrell Bradford, executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3) in New Jersey, notes about 13,000 predominantly African-American students have used the special review assessment process to graduate after failing one or both portions of the standard high school exit exam as many as three times.
Bradford argues the Schott study suffers by not disclosing what he describes as a testing scam in the Garden State.
“The study does provide an important national talking point about the historically low achievement visited upon black boys who attend monopoly school systems,” Bradford said.
“Not exposing the SRA/Alternate route issues in New Jersey borders on criminal. The truth here requires more than just taking the word of state education bureaucracies with a long history of self-interest,” Bradford said. “Everyone in New Jersey understands the scam the SRA has visited on black students. Why didn’t the study’s authors?”
24 States, No Exit Exam
New Jersey affords students as many as three chances to pass the state’s high-school exit exam, written at a middle school level, with a score of 50 percent. About 39 percent of high school seniors in Newark take the special review assessment route in order to graduate.
“Yes We Can” lead author Michael Holzman contends the difficulty levels of the exit exam and SRA are similar. He also noted several states lauded in the Schott report, including Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Maine, have no high school exit exam requirement.
“Twenty-four states have no graduation exit test. Eliminating students who did not pass a state test to get a diploma would mean no students at all would be considered high school graduates in those 24 states,” Holzman said. “All New Jersey students do have to pass a state test to graduate, but many students in other states do not. They still all should be counted as high school graduates.”
Money Equals Achievement?
The Newark school district spends an estimated $22,000 per pupil per year. The high per-pupil expenditures in Newark have been worthwhile, Holzman argues.
“Sending a child to private schools like Groton or Phillips Exeter costs $40,000 to $50,000 per year. If spending had no correlation with academic achievement, it is doubtful that these schools could charge parents those amounts,” Holzman said.
“The Newark academic outcomes are attributable to the changes that were put into place to make the academic opportunities for Newark students similar to those for students in New Jersey’s highly successful suburban districts,” he explained. “The result is worth the cost—more children have the opportunities for better lives; college attendance is up, and crime rates are down.”
Spending ‘Far from Reliable’
Bradford says high spending matters less than how the money is spent.
“Instead, you’ve got the same middling system, just twice as expensive as everywhere else. It’s not what you spend, it’s what you spend it on that matters,” Bradford said.
“I think we know that spending isn’t unimportant, but it’s far from a reliable predictor,” he said. “Newark public school tuition is elite private school tuition in many places in the country. Combine that with an average teacher salary of near $80,000, and you should have the best urban system in America.”
‘Are There Choices?’
Bradford criticized the Schott report for downplaying the need to give inner-city parents more educational options.
“You can’t use a hammer to fix everything. The study leans on the one true solution—a mythical urban public education monopoly—to reform itself and finally get about the business of equal opportunity,” Bradford said.
“The study, and so many like it, expects us to not recognize what’s important: Are the teachers good, and are there choices when they aren’t? Until we get there, all this other stuff is just paper,” he added.
Lindsey Burke ([email protected]) is a policy analyst in domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
Schott Foundation for Public Education: “Yes We Can: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males”: http://www.blackboysreport.org/bbreport.pdf