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State Officials Scramble to Address AHSA Issues

As many as 9,000 students could go without diplomas due to scoring changes in this year's Alternative High School Assessment. State officials are trying virtually everything to defuse the potential crisis

With as many as 9,000 students' high school diplomas in the balance, New Jersey officials are throwing everything but the proverbial kitchen sink at helping get them to and through graduation.

State officials are in a bind as they scramble to address how thousands of students failed a revamped Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA), the back-up test to the state's high school exit exam and one needed to graduate. In strategies presented to the Board of Education yesterday, they unveiled a new appeals process that now would allow students to bring in scores on the SATs and ACTs, and even teacher recommendations to make their case.

But exactly how that would work remains uncertain, with officials saying that scores on the SAT and other standardized tests could count for this year but then hedging on what those scores would need to be.

That left some board members flummoxed at the almost no-win situation.

Flying Blind

"We should have piloted this so we could have better predicted what would happen," said Board President Josephine Hernandez after the meeting. "But it’s too late for that now."

With graduations a month away, an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 students have not yet passed the alternative test this year, the first year since its administration and scoring were tightened to address worries it was too easy.

The AHSA is an open-ended exam given to those who fail the more standardized High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA). Without passing either the AHSA or the HSPA, students can't get their diplomas.

Credit: NJ Spotlight
Josephine Hernandez, president of the State Board of Education, speaks at yesterday's board meeting to the state's efforts to fix problems in its alternative high school exam.

Typically, only about 400 out of 100,000 high school seniors are denied diplomas due to the tests, state officials said.

But this has proven an extraordinary year, with the scoring changes throwing the results into turmoil and bringing on public outcry, one legislative hearing so far, and yesterday’s 90-minute discussion before the state board.

In that, there was some positive news for these students. Officials said a review of borderline scores from the January cycle of the AHSA had led to an additional 288 students passing in math and 215 in language arts.

The Latest Scores

Scores had also arrived for the latest administration of the HSPA, given for the last time to these students in October, and another 1,900 students passed in math and 1,500 in language arts, officials said.

But that still left thousands more wondering what would happen come June, when they were expecting to walk with their classes in graduation. Even with the latest numbers, only 15 percent of the students taking the language arts AHSA had passed and 37 percent the math section. The students took one more try in April, with their scores not back yet.

“We still have a very large number who failed unexpectedly,” said Willa Spicer, the deputy commissioner of education. “And I say unexpectedly because there was no warning to the districts or to the kids.”

Spicer met Tuesday night for three hours with Newark parents and advocates who had been affected by the controversy and said they were "scared to death to what will happen."

She said she tried to assuage them that every accommodation would be made to help their children meet the requirements. Another AHSA has been added in August, and further tutoring and remediation is planned as well.

Political pressure is coming down, too, with state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler saying that some legislators want the state to provide all the students the diplomas for this year while the problems are worked out.

“In effect, to ignore the law,” Schundler said.

Planning to meet with legislative leaders in two weeks, the commissioner said: “What we don’t want to do is lessen what a diploma means.”

Several board members agreed, saying the low passing rates aren’t just about the tests.

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

“This is a symptom, that’s what it is,” said member Dorothy Strickland of West Orange. “Even if they do show up better on the test, many of them aren’t ready in reading and writing and arithmetic. We need to do better.”

Credit: NJ Spotlight
Board members Edithe Fulton and Ronald Butcher listen to testimony at yesterday's State Board of Education meeting.

Add to the mix now an appeals process that is been cobbled together in the last week, with Spicer working out the guidelines over the last day. She said it would be aimed at students who met all other requirements and can make the case that the AHSA is an anomaly.

There are students who have received college scholarships who could see them revoked, she said, or there’s a sizable number in the Education Opportunity Fund programs for college-bound students.

“So if they have tests of other sorts and those scores are out there and they can show they have the capacity to read and write and do mathematics, we will review those and make a decision on appeal,” Spicer said.

It could be hundreds, if not thousands of students, making those appeals, and Spicer said the department would do all it could to review them all. In addition to other test scores, students could submit representations of their schoolwork, and employer or teacher recommendations that the students had exhibited the required skills.

‘We just want to make sure they are getting a fair break, no matter how we do it,” she said.

But then the questions came to the details. What would those scores need to be? Is it even legal for the state department and state board to unilaterally set new graduation standards that supersede those set in statute?

“The downside is if we allow students to go through this and someone challenges and wins, all these diplomas could be nullified,” said board member Ronald Butcher of Pitman.

Spicer said she would try to work around specific cut scores needed to pass, or other potential legal landmines. “We will find a way,” she said.

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