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New Safety Net for At-Risk High School Seniors

The Department of Education puts a new appeals process in place for students who don't pass the statewide graduation exams.

A year ago, New Jersey was faced with thousands of high school seniors in peril of not getting their diplomas due to failing the state’s graduation exam. As a result, state officials devised an appeals process on the fly that ultimately helped clear a majority of them.

This year, a new and more formalized appeals process is in place. And while it looks as if there may be fewer students appealing to start with, uncertainties persist as to whether there could still be thousands of students in jeopardy of graduating.

The new process gives students who have yet to pass the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) or, as a backup, the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA) a third way to show they have mastered the requisite skills.

Students who don't pass the HSPA the first time get individualized plans -- or Educational Proficiency Plan (EPPs) -- that track the district's interventions to help them, including extra tutoring.

If students continues to fail the HSPA or the AHSA, they can then appeal to the state, showing that they met the requirements of the EPP and also have other evidence of achievement, including samples of their work.

The first round of appeals was held in February, and state officials said about half of the 600 appeals were approved. But at that time there were still 7,000 to 8,000 students who had yet to pass the HSPA or the AHSA. And while they have had subsequent chances to pass both tests, time is running short.

The third and last HSPA administration was in March, and the latest administration of the AHSA was held last month. For those who still couldn’t pass, the window for appeals closed yesterday, the last chance before commencements later this month. A third cycle of appeals may be held after the last administration of the AHSA in July.

The state Department of Education is not disclosing much about the process so far, saying only that the guidance for EPPs and the appeals process was distributed to districts, and the latest appeals should be completed by June 14. The department has yet to say how many students statewide are potentially eligible -- or, in turn, in jeopardy of not getting their diplomas.

The department sent individual districts their students’ results on the latest AHSA on May 27, and also guidance to common shortcomings in the February appeals, including the lack of work samples or especially low HSPA or AHSA scores.

Still, the dearth of statewide information has concerned some who have followed the process closely, saying they are worried too many students may fall through the crack if districts have failed to follow the new guidelines and filed appeals as necessary. State officials last year cited that as a common concern.

"There were promises that this would be better, but they seem to be in the same pickle again," said Thomas Puryear, president of the NAACP chapters in the Oranges and Maplewood. "Districts were supposed to have done the EPPs but I’m not sure everyone did. If they did not, would students still be able to appeal? That’s the $64,000 question."

Stan Karp, a program director of the Education Law Center (ELC) in Newark, has been critical of the state’s process from last year and said he was withholding judgment so far on this year.

"We're anxious to see the results of the AHSA and the appeals process," he said in an email. "Last year, thousands of students did not get diplomas, because of the test results and the department did not do a good job of tracking what happened to those students."

"We also need to look at whether the new Educational Proficiency Plan process has led to better support and preparation for students who didn't pass the HSPA the first time and for students entering high school with poor scores on the 8th grade test. That was the original intent."

Karp said yesterday that a new national survey by the trade newspaper, Education Week, showing New Jersey with the highest graduation rate in the nation points to the importance of such alternatives. Twenty other states also have the alternative tests or appeals processes.

"It's important to keep multiple pathways to graduation open, especially as the state changes the way it calculates graduation rates and reviews its testing policies," he wrote.

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