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Op-Ed: Requiring PARCC Test to Earn High-School Diploma Still a Bad Idea for NJ

We don’t want to end up in the unenviable position of other states, issuing retroactive high-school diplomas

Lisa Wolff
Lisa Wolff

A couple years ago, I wrote my first NJSpotlight Op-Ed suggesting that it was premature to attach graduation and teacher evaluation stakes to an unproven test.

A month later, Gov. Chris Christie and the DOE announced a compromise which wisely lessened the stakes and specifically reduced PARCC testing impact on teacher evaluations.

Unfortunately, the remaining stakes are still too high.

In response to complaints that arose during the first iteration of PARCC, modifications were introduced for this year’s test. Further, Jeffrey Nellhaus, PARCC’s chief of assessment, acknowledged that PARCC scores were lower for students taking the exam on computer.

While the changes made to this year’s test will likely result in an improved assessment, the fact that such changes were required calls into question the advisability of using base-year exams for high-stakes decision making.

Flash ahead and indeed some predictable fears are coming to demonstrable fruition. New Jersey now mandates passing PARCC as a requirement for a high school diploma; as a result, a significant number of our qualified students are now at risk of not meeting graduation requirements.

If New Jersey continues on its current path, they may repeat mistakes made by the many states that have issued retroactive high-school diplomas to at least 70,000 students across the country in order to correct for exit-exam challenges.

Wealthier districts are far less threatened since students can afford to pay for alternative testing to meet graduation requirements. For example at Hopewell Valley Central High School, the vast majority of graduating seniors could meet their high-school exit-exam requirement by employing paid alternatives such as the SAT and ACT.

Prior to the PARCC requirement, districts used the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) and alternatively, the Alternate High School Assessment (AHSA). The new process does not apply a standardized approach toward demonstrating alternative proficiency. Instead it relies on each district to generate customized benchmarks, tests, and other evidence of mastery to be assembled into a portfolio and personalized to each student. The portfolio is subsequently submitted for DOE review.

This raises an obvious manpower problem. Staff spends weeks of valuable time generating portfolios rather than instilling academic knowledge. The problem amplifies as numbers increase. Failure rates may escalate as students receive less classroom instruction time.

Additionally, it begs the question … how much increased staffing is needed at the DOE to review portfolio submissions from hundreds of high schools?

Finally, while exam efficacy is beyond my scope, it is worth noting that about two-thirds of the states don’t require graduation exit exams at all. My district passed a resolution concerning these changes to graduation requirements. The HVRSD Board was not necessarily opposed to exit exams, but believed that it is premature to rely on the PARCC in its current state. The board found it disappointing that the DOE took a heavy-handed, rather than a more thoughtful or phased, approach to changing graduation requirements.

NJDOE should withdraw its pending graduation requirement proposals from consideration before the SBOE and take reasonable steps to proactively avoid the difficulties experienced by other states.

Lisa Wolff is the president of the Hopewell Valley Regional School District Board of Education and president of the Mercer County School Boards Association. The opinions expressed are her own. This article is not written on behalf of either the HVRSD-BOE or the MCSBA.

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