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Administration Soldiers On with PARCC Plans, Despite Protests from Parents

State is prepared to speedily process thousands of appeals from students who fail graduation tests, officials say

PARCC protest
Credit: Meir Rinde

State education officials are preparing for a potential surge of high-school seniors who are seeking alternative routes to graduation after they fail the controversial and relatively difficult PARCC exam, which became the state’s default pathway to a diploma this year.

Despite protests by parents and activists who argue that the new requirements could prevent thousands of students from graduating, especially in struggling urban districts, the Christie administration and state Board of Education are also moving forward on a plan to make passing the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests all but mandatory for the class of 2021.

This week is the start of the state’s testing period and over 100,000 students a day are taking the exams, Department of Education officials said. Those include high-schoolers who must either pass the language and math tests in 9th, 10th, or 11th grade, or else receive sufficiently high scores on alternative, fee-based tests like the SAT, ACT or PSAT or the military’s ASVAB exam.

If a student does not pass any of those tests, as a last resort districts can file an appeal asking that the student be allowed to graduate based on a review of a portfolio of the student’s academic skills.

A few hundred portfolio appeals have already been submitted, the DOE said. In recent years, between 1,400 and 1,800 have been filed annually. A DOE spokesman yesterday put the number of submissions at about 2,000 a year, though some of those were precautionary and were dropped when the student passed a test.

The figure could be much higher this year. Close to 55,000 11th graders, out of 95,000 enrolled, either opted out of the PARCC language test or didn’t pass it last year. Some of them may have met the graduation requirement by passing the test in 9th or 10th grade, or by taking alternative tests. But the high figures have raised alarms and energized activists who oppose the Christie administration’s investment in the new testing framework.

“The PARCC test should not be a graduation requirement. It fails half our kids and the (DOE) knows that,” said Bill Michaelson, a Lawrence resident who led an anti-PARCC protest outside the Department of Education offices in Trenton yesterday. “So what are they thinking? What’s the purpose here?”

Ten districts have told the DOE they expect to file at least 100 portfolio appeals each, officials said. The Education Law Center, which has sued the state over the new graduation rules, said Newark alone has more than 1,000 students who haven’t met the requirements yet and Paterson has nearly 700.

Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) said last month that a survey by legislative staff produced an estimate that three times as many appeals will be needed compared with last year, while in 2014 a DOE official said there could be five to 10 times as many as usual after PARCC was adopted. That would amount to roughly 7,500 to 15,000 appeals.

DOE officials were at pains yesterday to emphasize the number of options available to seniors and the department’s latest efforts to facilitate the process. For example, an English as a Second Language version of the Accuplacer language test was recently added to the list of approved graduation exams.

At a state Board of Education meeting, director of assessments Jeffrey Hauger noted that districts were given a 17-week window, through May 13, to submit portfolio appeals, compared with just two weeks last year. He said appeals can still be submitted after May 13 but might not be reviewed in time to allow seniors to walk on graduation day.

DOE staff at the state- and county-level offices have been organized to speed up portfolio reviews, Hauger said. To ensure the process runs smoothly, more staff are involved than the department expects it will need.

“We do have a system in place, so if we get 1,000 appeals or 50,000 appeals, we’re going to be flexible enough to deal with the loads that we receive,” Hauger said. “We’ve had a fair number of appeals, and at this point we’ve been able to turn them around in about a day. There’s no waiting, and we are getting them through fairly quickly.”

Portfolio assembly has been made somewhat uniform, with model math and language problem examples available to districts, he said. The department is in regular contact with every high school in the state to see when they expect to file appeals, and the DOE has reached out to 50 schools that said they needed extra help.

Education Commissioner David Hespe said the state had learned from its experience in 2010, when introduction of a more difficult version of the Alternative High School Assessment led close to 2,000 students to fail and spurred creation of the appeal process.

“We’re committed to making certain that eligible students graduate,” he said. “(With) the lessons learned from when we did this the same exact way five years ago, we’re doing this, I tend to think, much much better than we’ve ever done before. I’m very comfortable we got it right.”

The AHSA had been available to students who did not pass the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), the state’s former graduation exam. Both tests were used for the final time last year.

The Board of Education followed up the discussion of portfolio appeals by taking the first of two votes needed to make PARCC the only graduation test available to the class of 2021.

The proposal calls for a two-year phase-in. Students graduating in 2020 would be required to take PARCC math and language tests in 9th, 10th, and 11th grades, eliminating the current option of skipping the tests. Those who do not get passing scores could still take an alternative test or file an appeal.

Current 7th graders, who graduate in 2021, would additionally be required to pass the Algebra I and 10th grade English language arts exams, with a portfolio appeal as their only option if their test scores were below the cutoff.

The protesters outside the meeting criticized the move and vowed to continue fighting to prevent final approval of the new requirements.

Darcie Cimarusti, president of the Highland Park school board, said her district has about eight students who are in danger of not graduating because of the switch from HSPA to PARCC, and under the board proposal, 10 percent of students in future graduating classes would not meet the requirement.

“In a relatively high-performing suburban district, you’re putting 10 percent of your kids at risk of not graduating. So how is that going to play out in Camden, in Paterson, in more urban districts? It’s going to be insane,” she said. “We’re unnecessarily putting students at risk of not getting a diploma.”

Cimarusti said most states do not have graduation exit exams, and at least one that does, California, has started offering retroactive diplomas to students who failed the tests.

“Other states are backtracking on this really bad policy, while New Jersey is just zooming ahead. It makes absolutely no sense,” she said.

Following a 60-day public-comment period and public hearings, the state Board of Education is expected to take a second and final vote on the graduation requirement.

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