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Christie, Rewriting Rules for Graduation, Will Fill in Blanks Later

John Mooney | May 1, 2012

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

After much talk since taking office, Gov. Chris Christie yesterday finally released his plans -- some new, some old -- to raise the requirements for gaining a high school diploma in New Jersey.

But it will be some time for the changes to take hold, if they get that far. The first students to face the requirements will be today’s fourth graders when they reach high school in 2016.

Christie and his top education staff yesterday used a visit to West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional High School North -- one of the state’s higher performing schools -- to unveil a much-anticipated list of proposed changes to what will be required to graduate from a New Jersey high school.

Chief among them will be a new battery of so-called end-of-course exams in 9th, 10th and 11th grade in language arts and math. Students will need to pass at least the bulk of them to graduate -- starting with the class of 2021.

Christie said they would ultimately replace the current High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), given for the past decade in 11th and 12th grades as a broader measure of language arts and math skills.

There could also be additional end-of-course tests in the sciences and social studies, although those will likely be locally developed and it is unclear if they would be required for graduation.

What will be required in even the end-of-course assessments for Grades 9-11 is yet to be fully fleshed out. Christie’s acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, yesterday said the department would determine in the coming years both the passing scores on the individual tests and also how many of the six will be required for graduation.

“Those policy decisions lie in our future,” Cerf said.

But yesterday was less about the details and more about the politics and promises, with Christie and Cerf finally putting some flesh on their longtime claims that New Jersey’s schools don’t demand enough of their students.

“Today is about accountability,” Christie said. “We can’t go on at the level we are now, teaching to a test that is 8th grade level and telling them it is high school.”

Christie was referring to a 2004 study by a coalition of business and government leaders that said New Jersey’s HSPA -- as well as those in a half-dozen other sampled states -- was at an 8th to 9th grade level compared to international standards.

At the same time, Christie and Cerf yesterday presented a new methodology for determining how many students are graduating now, releasing what they called a more accurate graduation rate for the state of about 83 percent of students in 2011.

The state’s previous graduation rate was 95 percent, the highest in the country, but that was largely self-reported by districts. Required by the federal government, the new count tracks students who entered in 9th grade and how many graduate four years later.

New Jersey still ranks in the top 10, Cerf said, but the difference is as much as 10,000 students statewide that may have dropped out.

In some districts, officials said the rate will drop to as low as half the students graduating with their class. In Newark, for instance, just 61 percent of ninth graders in 2007 graduated in 2011 by the new count. The graduation rates for every district are expected to be released today.

Much of the Christie’s initiatives follow moves being taken across the country, with New Jersey one of more than 40 states that have signed up for a new national Common Core State Standards and new tests that will go with them. It is these tests, once developed, that will be the centerpiece of the end-of-course exams that students need to pass.

And it’s not even a new idea in New Jersey, either, as former Gov. Jon Corzine and his education commissioner, Lucille Davy, conducted their own review of the state’s graduation requirements that also called for similar end-of-course exams.

Piloted tests in biology and algebra were launched the next year to mixed results, at best, as many as half of students taking them did not pass. The biology test remains in place, but is not required for graduation. The algebra test is now optional for districts.

But some of the details in the plan are new, fleshed out in a report put together by a task force convened by Christie to review the current standards and recommend new ones. Former commissioner David Hespe, now Cerf’s chief of staff, led the task force.

For example, Cerf said the administration has struck a deal with community colleges that students passing the new tests will not be required to pass additional tests for admittance into college courses, a step that leaves many in non-credit remedial courses.

“If you pass these tests, you will no longer have to test into classes,” Cerf said.

Arcelio Aponte, the president of the State Board of Education, which will review the proposals and must act on them, called the agreement critical.

”That is probably the most powerful thing to come out of this,” he said yesterday. “Finally, some alignment from [kindergarten through college].”

Those who don’t pass will be provided “bridge courses” or remedial help on the specific areas of the tests where they fell short, Cerf said. “It will be work while you are high school to get those gaps filled,” he said.

What exactly the schools will provide remain a big question, and some critics immediately pointed out the plan comes with no new resources or tools for helping students pass.

Christie gave little indication that he would offer much more than higher expectations. He said other reforms such as revamping tenure and providing charter school choices are also part of the mix, and he decried any need for additional money in a state that provides as much as any in the country.

“It’s about changing the paradigm,” he said. “The government is setting different expectations that we ever have before.”

Yet for all the urgency that Christie and Cerf have placed on raising achievement, they are also being noticeably deliberate on this proposal.

For instance, the HSPA will continue for at least three more years, as well as its much-maligned Alternate High School Assessment (AHSA) that is given to those who fail the HSPA. Officials said the contract with Measurement Inc., which develops and administers the high school test, would be extended for that period.

“We do not want to tell 8th and 9th graders that the sands have suddenly shifted under their feet, and what they thought were the rules are no longer the rules,” Cerf said.

In the meantime, the end-of-course tests will go through their own test phase starting in 2014, beginning with students now in 5th grade once they reach high school. Still, passing the tests won’t be required for those students’ graduation, but instead they will be gauged on their course transcripts and other potential measures, such as the SAT or the ACT college entrance exams.

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