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Major Changes on Way for New Jersey's High School Tests

Details still scarce, but administration suspends graduation requirement as it begins move to Common Core, PARCC

standardized test

For the first time since 1989, New Jersey will next year suspend its requirement that high school graduates pass a state test in language arts and math to receive their diplomas.

But that doesn't mean there will be fewer tests, just that they'll be used for different purposes.

For instance, current eighth, ninth, and 10th graders will be tested in language arts and math now in three separate tests, and while passing the exams will not be required for graduation, the scores will be included in a student’s permanent transcript.

When the tests will once again be a prerequisite for a diploma is still to be determined.

The Christie administration is starting to plan for the new era of testing that will begin in 2014-2015, as part of the state’s alignment with the national Common Core State Standards.

Also in the works, the rollout of the elementary and middle-school tests -- again, starting in 2014-2015 -- is all part of a 20-state consortium known as the Partnership for Assessment of College and Career Readiness (PARCC) that is developing the tests.

With details still to come, Assistant Commissioner of Education Bari Erlichson yesterday sought to at least fill in some of the blanks about the high school tests that can be a lifeline for some students.

A central message was that the new PARCC testing will be a significant shift from the current High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), a comprehensive test given in 11th grade in language arts and math and in effect serving for the last time as a graduation requirement this year.

Starting in 2014-15, the new tests would instead be so-called end-of course assessments that measure how a student mastered specific content, whenever it is taught.

For high schools, that will be three tests each in language arts and math. The language arts will in all likelihood be given in ninth, 10th and 11th grades. The math is a little trickier, covering Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II. The tricky part is that Algebra I can be taught in many districts in eighth grade, and Erlichson said in those cases, the test would be given in eighth grade.

“We want students to take the tests when they take the content,” Erlichson said. “This is complex, because the Common Core and PARCC are not a strait jacket, and we want the districts to making the decision on when that assessment takes place.”

Erlichson said there would be a learning curve involved for districts as they look at their courses and what subjects are covered when. “In the transition, there will be some confusion,” she said.

At this point, Erlichson said the state’s intentions have been passed along to districts through her numerous appearances at local and countywide meetings of school leaders, but she said formal guidance would be forthcoming.

There also may need to be some changes to state law and regulations that currently require the state’s exit exams, but officials have said that has yet to be decided.

The uncertainty of the state’s plans has been one of the complaints from advocates and educators who say districts are eagerly waiting the details. One of those closely tracking the changes has been Stan Karp, a program director of the Education Law Center in Newark, the advocacy group that has led the Abbott v. Burke litigation.

Karp has been outspoken in his worries that the new standards and tests will only pose a greater hardship for students to stay in high school and graduate, especially in urban districts where dropout rates are high.

He commended the state for its slow phase-in of the new graduation requirement with the new PARCC tests, but said yesterday that he hoped more information would be forthcoming.

“The Department's proposal to suspend graduation testing during the transition to PARCC is a positive step in the right direction,” he said yesterday. ”But students and families need more information about what the rules will be, and the Department has been slow to provide clarification.”

The questions have come from legislators as well. A bill has been filed by state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) to delay implementation of the new standards and testing.

But yesterday drew questions from Republicans as well. In a letter sent to Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, a dozen Republican senators -- including some close allies of Gov. Chris Christie -- asked for specifics about the state’s implementation of the Common Core, including the new testing, as well as details to how much it would cost districts and the state.

“There have been a number of legitimate questions raised about the implementation and reasoning behind [the Common Core standards] that should be addressed,” said state Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris) in a press release. “There’s little as important as ensuring a quality education for our children and we need to make certain when there are significant changes made as to how that education is evaluated that those changes are understood and in the best interests of the future of all students,” he wrote. The questions echo those from other states across the country, as they move to the new standards and testing.

Cerf in a statement said he welcomed the discussion and would be forthcoming in answering the legislators’ questions.

“I applaud Sen. Pennacchio for reaching out to our office for more information on the Common Core State Standards,” Cerf said. “He’s doing his job: He’s getting information so he can accurately and rationally discuss the issue with constituents.

“Some citizens have questions about the new state standards because they need more information, while other citizens have questions that are fueled by the spread of misinformation. We look to clearly answer any and all questions, and we know that is the goal of our legislative leaders as well,” Cerf said

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