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Class of 2011: Diplomas Still to be Decided

High school graduation requirements leave schools scrambling, kids wondering.

New Jersey’s high school exit exam has long been the subject of debate and disagreement.

Through all of it, there are now three ways to graduate from a public high school. Pass the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA). Pass the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA), the much-maligned back-up test. Or, failing the first two, the newest and last option is to win on appeal to Trenton.

Even with those alternatives in place, last year saw an estimated 3,000 students fall short.

Now, with the Class of 2011 lining up for graduation, those abstract numbers are readily replaced by real people, such as Emonn Brown and Tyree Thomas, whose diplomas from Newark’s Barringer High School hang in the balance.

Earlier this week, both said they have reached all their credit requirements. But when it came to the state tests, they said they fell short on the math section, and then on the alternative, untimed test as well.

Taking one last shot, they each sent their formal appeals to Trenton, including their passing scores on Essex Community College’s placement test for next year. But as of earlier this week, they were still waiting to hear.

"It's a little nerve-racking to wait so long," said Thomas, 18, after coming to a Newark school board meeting Tuesday night to make his case.

Brown also spoke before the board, garnering little response. He said afterward that his classmates are starting this week to hold graduation rehearsals.

"I don’t know whether to go or not go," he said. "All I was told was hope for the best."

The state is set to release some more detailed numbers this week, but the two Newark teens are hardly exceptions. Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf last night said it is likely that several thousand students whose diplomas stand in jeopardy.

He could not yet provide a single total, but he said approximately 3,000 students had so far yet to pass the HSPA or AHSA in math, and another 3,500 still needed to pass in language arts.

How many of those who have gone on to appeal, Cerf could not say, but as for the last count in February, about 500 of 800 appeals overall had been approved.

Cerf downplayed the latest numbers as not being news in themselves, saying that the true count would be at the very end after summer school and one more round of AHSA this summer. And he repeated his long-held contention that New Jersey’s high school assessments need a broad overhaul to ensure that students have enough skills to be successful in college or the workplace.

Cerf said that what people should understand is the path to graduation and whether they're ready for college or a career.

Still, schools are scrambling to get as many students ready for graduation as they can. Passaic High School is holding its graduation today, and superintendent Robert Holster said approximately 100 students had failed to pass either HSPA or AHSA and, short of winning appeals, were unlikely to "walk the green."

"I’ve grown accustomed to this," he said yesterday. "It’s a sad time of year for some, instead of what it should be, a happy time."

Last-minute appeals were being filed as he spoke, and Holster said it comes down to a tough balance: the need for some standardized measurement to ensure students have learned what they need, but also the need to be fair.

And for his students, many who come from immigrant homes where they are not even proficient in their native language, Holster said it's hard to say what is fair. He said 40 percent of the 500 new students in the district last year were at least two years behind in their own language. And then add in that about one in five of his students are classified with a disability.

"Put all that together, and they're at a disadvantage before they pick up the pencil for the test," he said. "There is no silver bullet that could work for that."

Brown and Thomas, the Barringer High School seniors, weren’t making excuses, other than to say they only missed passing the HSPA math section by three or four points.

"We were told that’s the equivalent of one or two questions," Thomas said.

Still, they didn’t pass the AHSA, either, a test they said is easier in that it is untimed. They still have one more chance at that, and both said they were confident that either the appeals process or the summer AHSA would come through for them, at least in time to attend Essex County College next year.

But maybe not until after next week's graduation, something they had looked forward to. Not to mention, they'd already put deposits down for the cap and gown.

"I asked if it was refundable if I don’t pass," Brown said. "I didn’t get an answer."

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