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NJ Education Officials Unveil Test Requirements for High-Schoolers to Graduate

While plan offers options in lieu of passing PARCC exams, critics say plan breaks promise to delay mandate

Acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe

Ever since the Christie administration’s announcement two years ago that it would introduce new high-school testing, there have been questions about exactly what students would need to pass to graduate.

The state Department of Education yesterday started to answer that question with a transition plan for the next four years, offering a menu of options for students starting with the Class of 2016, who are now in their junior year.

The plan calls for requiring graduating students to pass at least one of the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests each in math and language arts, but also offers the option of letting students “substitute” a minimum score on the SAT or some other college entrance exam, as well as the option of going through an appeals process using a portfolio of student work.

The options will only be available to students in the classes of 2016, 2017 and 2018, after which the state would then decide whether to rely solely on the PARCC tests or keep other options open, officials said.

Starting this spring, the PARCC tests will be given in language arts in 9th, 10th and 11th grades, and three times each after students take Algebra I, Algebra II and Geometry, which are also typically studied in 9th, 10th and 11th grades.

“What we’re saying is that in the transition, we are accepting a number of different assessments that a student can take to meet the graduation requirement,” acting Education Commissioner David Hespe said yesterday.

The news came in a memo sent to districts yesterday, and also was announced at a regional convocation that Hespe held with more than 100 school superintendents in Parsippany.

There was not much vocal reaction among the school leaders at the convocation yesterday, with some saying they needed to review the plan further and others saying they welcomed the three-year transition.

But the announcement drew quick rebukes from critics of the state’s testing policy, with some saying the administration was reneging on its own earlier promises not to use the PARCC tests at all as a graduation gauge until as late as 2021.

“The fact that the Department includes ‘substitute’ non-state assessments … and retains an ‘appeals process’ does not negate the fact that the Department is effectively making 'passing' PARCC tests a graduation requirement,” said Stan Karp, a program director at the Education Law Center, in an email message.

He also cited state law that requires districts to notify students of graduation requirements when they enter high school.

“There are numerous other unanswered implications, especially for current (high school) students who will suddenly face new and unproven graduation policies,” Karp wrote.

Hespe, in an interview last night, said that the state was not mandating students pass the new test to graduate as of yet – only that they could use the PARCC to meet the requirement but would have other pathways, too.

For instance, the minimum passing score on the SAT would be a 400 out of the maximum 800, or a 16 out of a maximum 32 on the ACT. The state-approved appeals process where students can provide their classwork or other evidence of mastery has been in place for three years.

“There will be no mandated consequences to the (PARCC) test, but only as a part of a menu,” Hespe said. “And if a student does well on it, why not let them use it?”

Still, the process is sure to spur a lengthy discussion. The state has grappled for years, if not decades, with what to require for graduation, and that debate is unlikely to stop.

Previously, students needed to pass the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) -- a single battery of tests in math and language arts given in junior year -- to gain a diploma, but that came with alternatives as well, including an appeals process.

Gov. Chris Christie and former Education Commissioner Chris Cerf convened a task force in 2011 that proposed the use of end-of-course exams like those in PARCC to replace the HSPA. Hespe, then Cerf’s chief of staff, led the task force.

Former Gov. Jon Corzine convened a task force three years earlier that also supported the end-of-course tests.

It was unclear if the changes will require action by the State Board of Education or statutory changes. State officials said they believed they would not, but that was still under review.

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