NJ Spotlight forum tackles preparing high school students for life after graduation

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

In 2004, when the states were grappling with the grumbling over high school exit exams, Michael Cohen started to ask the question: does anybody actually need to demonstrate those skills in order to earn a high school diploma?

The question about math and literacy learning led to the testing for standards movement. Cohen is now the president of Achieve, the education reform group which was asking states what should be the high school standards in math and literacy. Cohen told an NJ Spotlight forum, “Defining the Diploma,” the responses were the basis of PARCC testing and Common Core.

“And for a variety of reasons, it turned out that the more those states shared information with each other, the more they looked at evidence about what the real-world demands were, the more similar their standards looked,” he said.

Fast-forward past the protests and opt-outs and forum moderator and NJ Spotlight founding editor John Mooney continued the conversation asking where are we now.

“Well, it’s a pretty complicated picture,” Cohen said. “Couple things. One is politics reared its head again. Partly over federal involvement issues. Partly over the federal push to require the tests be used for teacher evaluation. That turned out to be a bad idea.”

A state court invalidated the PARCC test as a requirement for graduation, so New Jersey is in the process of considering a replacement. Cohen, a former education adviser to President Clinton, offered some advice to the Garden State.

“Find a way to step back and have a conversation about what’s the purpose of testing particularly at the high school level. What do we want those results to mean for the students who take it?” he said.

Linda Eno, Assistant Commissioner for the Division of Academics and Performance in the NJ Department of Education, is among those considering what succeeds PARCC. She says real marketplace demands are changing so rapidly that educators must do more.

“How do we leverage our industry partners and our community organizations to provide more meaningful, relevant learning experiences,” Eno said.

The CEO of a staffing company says he’s a stickler for writing in a world of rapid electronic communicating.

“Your writing arrives before you do. So before I ever meet you, you write me an email that looks like it’s written by somebody in the 7th grade, and then you show up and you’re the chief so-and-so officer of whatever company, I’m making a judgment about you,” Gene Waddy, co-founder and CEO of Diversant, said.

“Defining the Diploma” is an NJ Spotlight series that focuses on setting policy to meet expectations of high school graduates. Look for the next one on testing in September.