It’s not often a teenager comes before the state Legislature to plead her case for a high school diploma. Or at least a fair shot at one.
That was Yohana Hernandez last week, in a blue t-shirt and nervous smile, sitting before the Assembly education committee to testify about a looming crisis in New Jersey: a controversial high school exam that could shut out thousands of seniors from receiving their diplomas next month.
The Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA) is a last-chance test given to those who haven't passed the required High School Proficiency Assessment.
AHSA provides an open-ended format that allows students to show their skills and knowledge by completing tasks over a longer period of time, rather than filling in multiple-choice and short-answer questions in a single sitting.
But this year the state Department of Education revamped AHSA's administration and scoring. And where once virtually every student passed, now thousands are failing, including Yohana, 17, a Lindenwold High School senior.
Yohana, an honors student at the Camden County high school and a member of the varsity soccer team, told the committee that her stumbling block is the language arts section. She emigrated from El Salvador four years ago and English isn’t her native language.
“I worked hard these four years in high school,” she said. “I think just because I and others didn’t pass an exam out of the hundreds we took during these four years and now won’t get our diplomas, it is not understandable.”
Legislators are starting to agree with her, and this should prove an eventful few weeks leading up to graduations across the state.
New Jersey is caught in a educational Catch 22: does it let a high numbers of students fail, or conversely, change course yet again and let them pass?
Democrats and Republicans alike say they may step in directly to demand the state revisit its changes in the AHSA, or at least slow them down, to give students a fairer shot. A state department official opened the possibility for the first time of an appeals process for “special cases.”
A Morris County mother testified that her son was among those still in the AHSA limbo, despite his acceptance to a four-year college and a $20,000 scholarship offer.
“Something stinks in Denmark,” said state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), chairman of the committee, after hearing testimony from nearly a dozen students and educators complaining about the process.
Assemblyman Joseph Malone, (R-Burlington), said it was a “catastrophe waiting to happen” when the state revamped the test to address complaints the previous version was too easy and a back door to a diploma.
That was a move he initially applauded, but he now says it could have been better handled. While the state reviews its changes, he wondered if schools should remain the final arbiters for another year on whether students deserve to graduate.
In the meantime, he asked for a copy of the exam to see if legislators would do any better. “The best test of this would be to give all the Legislature that exam,” he said.
The AHSA controversy has clearly caught the state by surprise, even with the changes several years in the making.
First instituted in the early 1980s and then called the Special Review Assessment (SRA), the test was meant for the few students who have difficulties with the pressures of standardized testing.
But over the years, it evolved into a catch-all for students failing the standardized test, and several years ago, one in seven graduates required the SRA to graduate. In some urban high schools, it was more than half the students.
The biggest questions were over the rigor of the tasks when students had near-limitless time to complete them, and their classroom teachers were doing both the teaching and grading.
One of the changes this year came in tightening the time in which students could do the tasks, setting aside specific intervals for administration. These changes were included in the most recent round of tests in April.
The scoring of the exams was also taken outside the home districts. The plan was to set up a network of scorers from certified teachers across New Jersey. When not enough signed up, the state enlisted its testing vendor in North Carolina, Measurement Inc.
That’s when the high failure numbers started coming back, with just one in 10 students passing the language arts AHSA through January, and one in three in math. The numbers are likely to come down after the April scores are counted, but as many as 8,000 students are now affected.
It’s not just urban schools, either. An analysis by the Education Law Center in Newark, which first exposed the problems, found that half of those taking the AHSA were in the poorest districts, but close to a third of those taking the math AHSA, for instance, were in upper-middle and high-income districts.
Two dozen superintendents from across the state, from rich and poor districts, wrote state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, complaining about the fairness of the process.
“No one questions the right of the state in changing the high school standards,” said Stan Karp, a program director for Education Law Center who has led its work on the AHSA. “We do question the fairness of changing that standard three months before graduation.”
Given the problems, the state is scrambling with a month left in the school year.
First off, the state has asked for a rescoring of 3,600 marginal scores from the January, with results to come back this week. Additional funding is also promised for tutoring and work over the summer, with another test scheduled for August.
Still, Schundler said a line needs to be drawn somewhere. Once all testing and retesting is completed, he said these students will have had a chance to pass either the AHSA or the HSPA six times.
"All kinds of accountability have been put on our schools, but we have to let the students know they are accountable, too," he said. "We're telling them they have to step up to the plate."
He predicted that even with changes, there will be a certain percentage who still do not pass the tests. And he said that should be a wakeup call for their schools.
“We can’t have a situation where in their 12 years, they have not mastered the basic skills they will need to go on to college and the workplace,” he said.
In the meantime, Schundler said the department is encouraging districts to allow students on the cusp to walk with their classes at graduation, even if the diploma itself does not come with the handshake.
And for the first time, Deputy Commissioner Willa Spicer said there would be an appeals process for extraordinary cases where a student clearly has met all other requirements to graduate. Guidelines have yet to be developed for that, she said.
“We’d have to look at some individually,” she said. “We couldn’t let that go.”
This weekend, Yohana was anxiously waiting to hear her fate. She retook both the AHSA and the HSPA, and a passing score on either in the language arts could bring a long-sought sigh of relief. She hasn't made plans for graduation or college or even the summer until she knows.
"I don't care about all the graduation parties right now," she said. I just want my diploma."