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Real Test: Determining PARCC Proficiency Cut-Offs for High School Graduates

Based on just-released results, many 12th-graders face more complicated route to earning diplomas

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As educators and families grapple with interpreting the new PARCC test results that started to be rolled out this week, the stakes for some students could be real and immediate.

Only about a third of New Jersey high school students taking the state’s new language arts and math exams met any one of the PARCC’s proficiency levels, according to results announced by state education officials this week.

The proficiency rate for PARCC’s geometry test was only 24 percent. In Algebra II, the proficiency rate was 23 percent.

While the sobering results were not terribly surprising given they were new tests, tens of thousands of current high school students who may have been on track to graduate may now face a new obstacle to obtaining their diplomas in June.

Under state law, students must pass the state’s exit exam to graduate. But under an improvised system put together by the administration for the first three years of the new testing, 12th-graders will have other options.

For example, students can still meet the graduation requirement by hitting minimum marks on the SAT or ACT college entrance tests.

Failing that, a new appeals process has been set up for students to make their case for graduation individually.

But whatever the path, at least one bar has clearly been raised for New Jersey’s high school students, and state officials acknowledged there will need to be some significant short-term and long-term adjustments.

When asked whether the state even has the capacity to handle an appeals process that may include tens of thousands of students, state Education Commissioner David Hespe said the necessary resources will be found: “We’re a big department; we’ll deploy whatever we need.”

This is not an unforeseen issue. The state’s graduation requirements, and what exactly will be required for a diploma, have been the subject of intense debate for years, even before PARCC.

A coalition of parents has sued the state over what they call its failure to follow proper procedures for public notices and hearings on the new rules. And the Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy group, questioned the revamped graduation process even before the release of the PARCC scores, arguing that the various pathways to a diploma put at a disadvantage those who need the most help, including English-language learners.

“NJDOE's graduation proposals create multiple, new options for students with access to the most challenging academic programs, while reducing options for those who don't have such access,” said the ELC in a press release this week.

The ELC contends that New Jersey, under the Christie administration, is the only state that has linked graduation to PARCC before the new exams can be assessed and validated.

Next up, the State Board of Education will meet in early November to decide on the cut-off for passing scores for all grades, not just high school.

The statewide proficiency rates released this week were standards determined by PARCC, a consortium of 11 states and Washington D.C., but each state has some leeway in determining their own passing scores.

Hespe, the state education commissioner, reiterated yesterday that he would propose to the State Board of Education that it stick with PARCC’s cut-offs, which use a five-point scale, with “4” equaling expectations and “5” exceeding expectations.

‘They had hundreds of educators going through the scoring process, and they said that a 4 or 5 was the way to go,” Hespe said yesterday. “That will be what we will be proposing to the State Board.”

The longer-term questions center on eventually determining the state’s new high school graduation requirements. Will students need to pass all of the new PARCC tests or just a select few? Will the requirements for earning a “4” or “5” go as high as Algebra II or will be Algebra I be enough? What level of achievement in language arts will have to be reached?

Hespe yesterday said a task force that has been looking at state testing for the past six months has yet to issue a report. Hespe, who chairs that group, has said the report will include recommendations for high school requirements.

“We’ll hopefully see that soon,” Hespe said of the report. “I’m not going to speak on their behalf.”

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