Special to Montclair Local

If you haven’t yet seen the New Jersey Monthly magazine’s Top 100 High Schools list in its September 2018 issue, consider this a spoiler alert and stop reading now. For everyone else, here’s the news: Montclair High School didn’t make the cut. After claiming the No. 73 spot in 2016, a stubborn achievement gap has placed Montclair significantly lower in 2018, now ranking at 115th, not even in the top third of the full list of 305 public high schools ranked in the state.

Our town’s high school isn’t the only one with this vexing problem of decline. With achievement gap problems similar to Montclair’s and a resulting lawsuit to contend with, Columbia High School in the South Orange-Maplewood School District managed to maintain a slot on the top 100 list, but the school’s rating dropped from 64 in 2016 to its current ranking of 88.

The Roadblock from Good to Great

The methodology employed to compile the Top 100 High Schools list places significant weight on metrics that speak to inclusiveness of opportunity and universality of participation and outcomes. For example, the percentage of all 11th and 12th grade students taking at least one Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) course is a factor in the rankings, as is the percentage of 11th and 12th graders who actually take the tests associated with each offering. A stark divide exists here between black and white students in Montclair, the most populous racial groups in our schools. SAT scores and AP or IB pass rates are also taken into account, and this is another area where racial disparities place Montclair at a disadvantage.

What Matters and Why

Beyond an eye-catching list, we must care about these factors. For starters, mere participation in AP/IB courses correlates to students’ persistence and success in college because of how it acclimates course-takers to the demands of postsecondary studies, reducing the chances that students will later throw in the towel as soon as things gets tough.

The percentage of students who take and pass AP tests is significant as well, because these passes can translate to cost savings of thousands of dollars, by allowing students to earn college credits before they ever step foot on a college campus. The potential impact for low-wealth families is huge. And while some colleges no longer require test scores for admission, the majority of tertiary institutions still do consider them so their relevance is clear.

Fundamentally, disparate student participation and outcomes in academics speaks to two possibilities, either deficiencies in our students or deficiencies in the individuals or institutions that serve them. But when diverse school districts like Orange, Rahway, and Hillside are earning national accolades for increasing AP participation and pass rates across racial groups, we see that students are not the problem. Our obligation as adults must then be to create the best conditions for our children’s success.

Some say we must “get back to real learning,” suggesting that learning demonstrated on a test is inauthentic or inconsequential. We should never focus solely on written tests, but they do matter. That’s why we use them as part of the credentialing process in fields as diverse as plumbing, lifeguarding, accountancy, medicine and law.

The Top 100 rankings do go beyond academics to note the percentage of students taking at least one course in the visual or performing arts. Still, the story is incomplete. Rankings don’t show the MHS teachers who are highly-skilled at their craft and those that go beyond the call of duty volunteering their time to tutor students or sponsor student clubs, nor do they show the great academic and social experiences that MHS students have every day. The district’s life-changing student support team members don’t show up in the Top 100 ranking either, nor do the rankings reveal the many character-building sports programs at MHS. All of these factors count, but none of them should detract from the fact that other metrics count too.

Making Things Better, Moving Ahead

Like trigger-happy cops, bad teachers are in the minority, but they do exist. Rubber-stamping virtually every teacher as effective is disrespectful to great teachers and it won’t make kids’ lives better; honest, evidence-based evaluations will. To that end, excellent professional development for teachers is crucial, as is a feedback-friendly instructional culture. However, after all is said and done, we must insist that educators of poor quality are kept far away from Montclair’s classrooms.

More broadly, access to challenging course material is key, as well as the development of more uniform curriculum in all major subjects. We should also be reaching out to similar districts and schools excelling in areas where we fall short, to learn from them and forge partnerships to replicate their success. Finally, to avoid redundancy and help the neediest kids, we must streamline in-district and community supports.

As we embark on a new school year, let us not lose sight of the racial achievement gap, but not for the purpose of getting bragging rights for a magazine list. Instead, we must narrow and ultimately close the gap to create a viable future for all of the students our public schools are privileged to serve.