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Diplomas should be more than just paper

A proposal by Gov. Christie to do away with New Jersey's current graduation exam would raise the bar on student achievement and help ensure that a high school diploma from a school in the state is more than just a piece of a paper.

Christie wants to replace the current comprehensive examination of everything a student has been taught in high school with  end-of-course tests similar to a final exam, which is more practical.

The changes were recommended by a task force that concluded the state's High School Proficiency Assessment, as well as an alternative test taken by students who fail the first option, is not properly aligned with New Jersey's curriculum standards.

The current high-stakes test produces thousands of empty diplomas handed out to seniors who leave high school without having actually learned the basic math and reading skills needed to go to college or get a job.

About 82 percent of New Jersey students who graduated in 2011 passed the High School Proficiency Assessment, but remedial courses were needed by 90 percent of those who enrolled in Essex County College, and a third of those at Rutgers University.

Christie also announced last week that New Jersey has adopted a new federally mandated method to calculate graduation rates. The more rigorous method will provide a more accurate measure of student performance. Using the new formula, the state's graduation rate is 83 percent, and not the 94.7 percent it calculated using the old measure.

The individual school-district statistics based on the new graduation calculation reinforce the need for a better testing regimen and tougher graduation standards.

The new formula showed Camden had a 57 percent graduation rate for the 2010-11 school year. Even more disturbing, only 21 percent of Camden students who entered the ninth grade left four years later with a diploma.

New Jersey students now in fourth grade would be the first to graduate from high school based on the new tests, which will be paid for with about $180 million in federal funds.

That's a long time, but the state can put it to good use by figuring out how it's going to help those students who can't meet current standards pass the even tougher requirements.

Devising new curriculum standards aligned with the individual tests for each course could cost more than $500 million. Where's Christie going to find that money?

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, Gov. Corbett is retreating from the state's earlier decision to phase in a plan that would require seniors by 2015 to pass tests in 10 subjects to get a high school diploma.

Corbett's proposed budget for the next fiscal year would delay implementation of the requirement for two years and reduce the number of subjects students would be tested on to three —  algebra I, biology, and literature.

That doesn't seem sufficient to significantly raise the bar on student achievement. In a world in which the competition for jobs is only going to get more intense, children must be properly prepared.