State Revises Scoring System, Thousands May Fail to Graduate

The state has been talking for years about revamping how it scores the Alternative High School Assessment. Now that it has, as many as 6,000 to 8,000 graduations could be imperiled

Thousands of New Jersey high school seniors—in both urban and suburban districts alike—could be in danger of not graduating this summer after the state revamped how it scores its alternative exit exam.

After years of talking about the need for changes, the state this year redesigned the scoring system for its controversial Special Review Assessment—now named the Alternative High School Assessment—and took it out of the hands of the teachers working directly with the students.

But with worries mounting that it would only punish those students, state officials concede that the early numbers aren’t encouraging.

Out of 4,500 taking the alternative language arts test, just 10 percent have passed so far. Out of 10,000 taking the math section, only 35 percent have so far passed.

An Issue of Fairness

Without passing both sections, students cannot graduate. The test is given to students who fail the more standardized High School Proficiency Assessment.

The topic drew heated discussion at yesterday’s state Board of Education meeting, where the Department of Education’s top testing officials were called before the panel to explain the high failure rates so far.

Board members said they only learned of the potential crisis from letters sent to them by the Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy center best known for leading the Abbott v. Burke school funding litigation.

“This is an issue of fairness; they’ve been told all these years they have done enough, and now they are being told that’s been insufficient?” said board member Ernest LePore. “There has to be some consideration of fairness.”

Arcelio Aponte, the board’s vice president, said some of the students are honors students or in advanced placement classes, accepted to colleges but now in peril of not getting their diplomas.

“The reality is we have some good students who are failing this,” he said, “The pendulum has swung too far the other way.”

State Defends Scoring Change

State officials defended the scoring that is now in the hands of its outside testing vendor, Measurement Inc., and said students still have the chance to pass the test in the coming months.

“The process is still under way,” said Timothy Peters, the state’s director of testing. “I can say with certainty that nobody as yet has failed the ASHA, and all these students will have another opportunity.”

But state officials acknowledged some extraordinary steps would be taken in the coming months to make sure both the scoring is foolproof and students are given the support they need.

The state has been gearing up for the new scoring for several years, after questions were raised that the previous scoring system was too lenient and virtually all students ultimately passed.

State officials said districts were warned the changes were coming, but few did much to prepare.

“We begged districts to have summer programs for these seniors, and please, put your best teachers in these classrooms,” said Willa Spicer, the deputy commissioner. “But the culture that everyone passes this test was so strong that even a two-year warning did not change their basic understanding.

“Still we did not anticipate how much a difference it would make,” she said.

In bringing the problems to light, the Education Law Center said today that it will continue to press the state to go back to the old scoring this year until the issues can be resolved.

“You can’t just roll out a high-stakes test like this without field-testing the scoring,” said Stan Karp, a program director for the ELC. “You wouldn’t do it for any other test.

“We’re talking 6,000 to 8,000 students that may not graduate because of this,” he said. “That’s a lot of kids.”