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For Hopeful Seniors, PARCC Scores Could Complicate Graduation Plans

A low score on PARCC exams won’t cost students their diplomas, but it will shunt them into a world of options and alternative tests

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This month’s release of the first PARCC scores is quickly establishing a new reality for high schools and seniors hoping to graduate this June.

For the majority of students, the inaugural PARC scores distributed by the Department of Education to all school districts have arguable import, understandable for the first run of this much-debated test.

But for high school students, especially those intent on getting their diplomas this year, the scores can help determine if they will be able to graduate.

Under the state’s evolving graduation requirements, one option is for a student to hit certain marks on the PARCC tests for language arts and math.

Students who fail to meet that requirement -- or don't take the test at all -- have other options as well, including threshold scores on the verbal and math SAT and ACT college-entrance tests. There also is an extensive appeals process in which students can submit “portfolios” of their work in each subject area for the state’s ultimate review.

True, the scores have just started coming in, but at some high schools, officials said, the options are a dizzying indication of what needs to be done and when.

Freehold Regional High Schools District, comprising six high schools, has broken down what each student will need once the PARCC scores are in hand, reaching out to parents to what’s required, and following through by helping arrange the alternative tests or the appeals process.

“While the state has provided guidance, the man-hours, planning, student and parent outreach and coordination, and subsequent assistance [to students] … has been a very heavy lift,” said Charles Sampson, superintendent of the district.

In an email exchange, Sampson said he doubted there will be too many in his district needing to go through the appeals process once all the alternative tests are considered. In addition to the SAT or ACT, a student can also meet minimum levels on certain commercial tests, including Accuplacer which is used in colleges for placement into classes.

But the superintendent said that doesn’t minimize the work involved sorting through the requirements. “It’s been a ton of work in high schools,” Sampson said.

Across the state, the numbers of students going through this will be significant in this first year of the new test.

According to the statewide numbers released in October, just 41 percent of the roughly 100,000 high school seniors passed the PARCC language arts test for 11th grade, and 23 percent passed the Algebra II test typically given in 11th grade.

The tests do not define pass or fail, but grade students on five tiers: “Not Yet Meeting Expectations,” “Partially Meeting Expectations,” “Approaching Expectations,” “Meeting Expectations,” “Exceeding Expectations.” For the high school graduation requirement, students must be either approaching or meeting expectations, depending on the test.

In some districts, there is little worry that the alternative tests will provide a quick and easy Plan B. Ridgewood High School saw less than 20 percent of its high school students even took the exams last year, part of a widespread opt-out movement in the state.

But in the well-to-do Bergen County borough, superintendent Daniel Fishbein said most of those students will have met the mark on the corresponding SATs or ACTs, raising the question as to whether they really needed to take the PARCC at all.

“We have more students taking the alternative tests versus PARCC,” he said in an email. “We have been tracking what kids took a particular alternative test and what their scores were. Any portfolio appeals, if any, will be minimal.”

Still, others will not have that same range of opportunity, and the state Department of Education plans a system for helping districts work through the appeals process.

It won’t be easy. For example, students needing to make up the math requirement must include the following from their classwork, as submitted by the district:

“A student appeal must include one (1) graded, open-ended response student work sample for four out of the five mathematical content categories. Each work sample must use one of the two mathematical practice categories described … to evidence the mathematical practices.”

“Students cannot be considered “proficient” based on computation alone. In order to get a two or higher, students need to demonstrate their ability to reason and model mathematically.

Recognizing the certain increase in such appeals, the state has offered its special assistance to districts that are expecting to see at least 100 students needing to submit personal-portfolio appeals.

This is not a new process for the state, with some version of the appeals process being used for the past four years. In that time, there have been between 1,400 and 1,800 appeals submitted each year, officials said.

But they acknowledged that number could rise well into the five figures, and the department has reacted accordingly. “We changed the process in a few ways to ensure we can handle an increase in volume,” said department spokesman David Saenz.

In addition, the department has widened the window for students to submit appeals to several months, instead of the previous one or two weeks. The process will start in January and run through May, and officials said the wider window should afford the state plenty of time to work through the filings.

Editor's note: This story was updated after it was first published.

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