School leaders, education professionals and the education community in general identify student achievement as the top priority of our public school system.

But what exactly constitutes student achievement? As a parent, I once believed that the proof of student achievement was good grades and the kind of test scores that led children to be invited into special classes, such as a gifted and talented program, and advanced placement and honors classes. In my mind, student achievement was primarily measured by the kind of academic proficiency that led ultimately to college acceptance.

While that concept – high test scores and good grades – does connote student achievement, most people also intuitively know that student achievement has broader applications in important nonacademic performance areas as well. If student achievement were only defined in terms of the college-bound student, our education system would fall short in preparing many students for meaningful futures.

There are many types of learners out there, and not all students have the desire or the ability to excel in the traditional academic areas, yet they all have the capacity to achieve great success. It is important that school leaders see the complete picture and ensure the educational program provides opportunities for student achievement that accommodate the diversity of interests, talents and abilities within the student pool.

The current 2018-2020 NJSBA Strategic Plan has as its first goal area “Student Growth, Learning, Well-being and Success.” This goal has three objectives, one of which is to “broaden the definition of achievement to include academic progress, social-emotional learning and global citizenship as measures of success.”

It was with the same spirit that NJSBA initiated its Task Force on Educational Opportunities for Non-College Bound Learners in 2017. This task force, made up of local school board representatives and NJSBA staff, will study the current status of education programs and post-secondary training and career opportunities for non-college-bound high school students, identify strategies to expand program options, and recommend appropriate action by local school boards, NJSBA, and other governmental entities involved in education.

The New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) prioritizes student achievement as the root of all education goals. This goal statement located on the Educator’s Portal links student achievement to teacher preparedness and the New Jersey Student Learning Standards: Maximizing achievement for every student is the goal that drives every part of the education process. Well-prepared teachers who continuously improve their classroom practice in teaching the New Jersey Learning Standards to their students will affect learning in positive ways as measured by the state’s annual assessments. Everything is connected and leads toward one goal – student achievement.

While not directly stated in the NJDOE goal, a broad definition of student achievement may be implied because the emphasis is on “every student” and the New Jersey Student Learning Standards go beyond the traditional academic requirements of English language arts, mathematics, science, world languages and social studies. The standards include life and career skills, health and physical education, technology and the arts. In particular the 21st Century Life and Career Skills standard emphasizes that the education program prepare students for career readiness after high school ends. The career awareness, exploration and preparedness, and career and technical education components of this standard have important applications for all students and especially those who do not pursue post-secondary education and college but opt for paths such as the military and vocational training, and for students who have learning differences that make achievement in the traditional academic settings challenging.

The NJDOE has resources to help schools and students achieve the 21st Century Life and Career Skills Standard including the New Jersey Career Assistance Navigator (NJCAN), a web-based career information system that can be used to implement personalized student learning plans (PSLPs). A personalized student learning plan is a formalized plan and process that involves students setting learning goals based on personal, academic, and career interests, beginning in the middle school grades and continuing throughout high school with the close support of adult mentors, including teachers, counselors, and parents. NJCAN is available and accessible to students at all academic levels including English language learners, gifted and talented students, and students with learning disabilities. (More information is available here.

Model policy 6146, Graduation Requirements, in the Critical Policy Reference Manual (CPRM), sets forth the general requirements to earn a high school diploma. As part of the state graduation requirements, each high school board of education is also required to establish a process to approve individualized student learning opportunities that meet or exceed the New Jersey Student Learning Standards (N.J.A.C. 6A:8-5.1(a)2i). This provision in policy and in the law gives students the flexibility to engage in educational activities in areas of interest that they would not be able to pursue due to obstacles such as scheduling conflicts, because a course is not offered by their school district, or for other reasons.

According to the regulations, individualized student learning opportunities are “student experiences based upon specific instructional objectives that meet or exceed the New Jersey Student Learning Standards (NJSLS) at the high school level. Such opportunities may occur in all New Jersey Student Learning Standards and may include, but are not limited to, independent study; online learning; study-abroad programs; student exchange programs; and structured learning experiences, including, but not limited to, work-based programs, internships, apprenticeships, and service learning experiences. The opportunities shall be based on student interests and career goals.”

Individualized student learning opportunities differ from Option II programs which focus on attaining high school credit for board-approved college courses and post-secondary learning opportunities. But post-secondary study is not required for individualized student learning opportunities. These opportunities may include athletic training, work experience, online courses and other forms of curriculum that meet or exceed the requirements of one or more curriculum standards of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards.

Structured Learning Experiences The structured learning experience (SLE) is one type of individualized student learning opportunity that is open to all high school students and accommodates a large range of student talents, interests and abilities. A structured learning experience (SLE) is an experiential, supervised, in-depth learning experience aligned to the New Jersey Student Learning Standards that is designed to offer students the opportunity to more fully explore career interests within one or more of the Career Clusters. SLEs are designed as rigorous activities that are integrated into the curriculum and that provide students with opportunities to demonstrate and apply a high level of academic, and/or technical skills, and develop personal, academic and career goals.

Structured learning experiences include real world work experience that provides students with an opportunity to explore career interests and skills, gain work experience, develop good work habits and build self-esteem. These experiences may also provide valuable insight about supports and accommodations a student may need in an employment environment.

There are many considerations in establishing structured learning experiences including the provision that certified staff are trained to supervise, defining the approval criteria for work or community sites, tailoring the SLE to align with the New Jersey Student Learning Standards and ensuring that educational goals and outcomes are appropriately identified, monitored and assessed. Worksites need to comply with child labor laws and regulations, meet health and safety standards defined by law, agree to and facilitate the execution of the student’s learning plan and work cooperatively with the teacher both in the evaluation of the student’s achievement and the assessment of the appropriateness of the worksite.

The New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of Career Readiness has resources available to support districts and schools in the development and operation of structured learning experiences and offers courses to train staff to supervise structured learning experiences. In addition they provide information and guidelines, model forms, checklists and agreements for school districts to use here.

Structured learning experiences are only one kind of individualized student learning opportunity. The district may approve other individualized proposals from students and their parents/guardians such as independent study, online learning and study-abroad programs for credit toward high school graduation when they meet the requirements of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards. All such programs must, at a minimum, meet the following criteria:

Individualized student learning opportunities based upon specific instructional objectives aimed at meeting or exceeding the New Jersey Student Learning Standards shall:

  • • Be based on student interest and career goals as reflected in the Personalized Student Learning Plans;
  • • Include demonstration of student competency;
  • • Be on file in the school district and subject to review by the Commissioner or his or her designee (N.J.A.C. 6A:8-5.1(a)2, i).

I recently attended a meeting of the Morris County School Boards Association and had the opportunity to hear about some very exciting, innovative and engaging programs being conducted at northern New Jersey high schools, including dual enrollment programs, the International Baccalaureate program, and vocational programs. One audience member had a question for the panel about what opportunities are available for students who may not be interested in attending college?

Each presenter had excellent responses to this question about how their programs included and served students with a variety of interests, talents and abilities. Scott Moffitt, superintendent, shared that in his district a student graduating from the Morris County Vocational School District was accepted into a top training program at BMW in auto mechanics. He enthusiastically added: “That’s the kind of thing we get really excited about here!” There is no doubt about it – that is impressive student achievement.

It is the responsibility of school leaders to ensure that every student has the opportunity to earn credits to graduate with a high school diploma both through the traditional educational program and through flexible and creative programs such as individualized student learning opportunities. By taking advantage of the abundant array of state-supported resources for career and vocational training the board can ensure that the educational program provides each student the opportunity to identify and pursue personal strengths and interests that fall inside and outside the traditional academic areas of study.

NJSBA critical policies and legal references 6146 Graduation Requirements and 6142.12 Career and Vocational Education may be downloaded at For sample and model policies and regulations covering other related topics or for help developing policy and regulation language to suit your needs do not hesitate to contact NJSBA Policy Services.