NJ Schools and Students Do the AHSA Scramble

Alternative High School Assessment scores and rules challenge educators -- and would-be graduates trying to meet requirements for diploma

A dozen or so high school seniors on the bubble of getting their diplomas were called into the principal’s office at the start of the day to hear their fates one by one.

The latest scores came back yesterday on the state’s controversial Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA), and at Lindenwold High School, principal Peter Brandt told staff it would be better to tell each student alone.

Out of 11 who needed to pass the alternative test in language arts, seven were told they did. Out of seven needing to pass in math, all but one succeeded.

Teacher Ann Ryan was in the office for one boy who failed in language arts, ready with her plan to appeal to the state. The boy, a wrestler, was already accepted to a college but admission was contingent on a diploma.

“We told him we would not give up, even if we have to drive you up to Trenton to appeal ourselves, even if we have to drive you to the college and make the appeal there,” Ryan said.

With commencements less than a month away, such has been the scramble for New Jersey teachers and administrators racing to meet still-changing rules on New Jersey’s graduation requirements.

At the center of the tumult has been the AHSA, an open-ended test for those who fail the more standardized High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA). Long criticized as a test that students can pass too easily, the state this year changed the AHSA’s administration and scoring and suddenly found thousands of kids failing and in peril of not getting their diplomas.

That brought outcry from unsuspecting parents and hearings from indignant legislators, including before the state Senate’s education committee today, where state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler has been called to testify.

“To me, there hasn’t been a comprehensive formalized plan to deal with these concerns,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairwoman of the committee.

This has left districts scrambling – first to find out the latest results released to them yesterday, and then to start planning for appeals under new and unprecedented rules set by the state.

Newark probably stands alone in sheer number, with more than 500 students in danger of failing the test as of last week. The numbers were sure to decrease with the latest results still being tabulated at the end of yesterday, said the district’s board president, Shavar Jeffries.

“We’ll find out the universe of kids tomorrow,” he said. “But we promise, we will get every last appeal to the state by the deadline on June 7.”

Hudson County Vocational and Technical Schools kept open its adult high school this spring for AHSA preparation classes only, with other programs shuttered due to state budget cuts. About 300 students still needed to pass before the scores came back yesterday.

“I heard there was a lot of improvement with the latest scores, more than I expected,” said Frank Gargiulo, the superintendent. “Not sure what the state did differently, but it helped.”

And the rest, the district would pursue appeals as well. “We’ll handle as best we can,” Gargiulo said.

What constitutes a successful appeal was still evolving, even yesterday, when a memo adding more criteria to the mix went to districts.

Previously, it was a corresponding SAT score of at least 400, or a 16 out of 32 on the ACT. Yesterday’s memo added placement scores on the community college placement exams.

And even if those cutoffs aren’t met, the state said it would accept appeals based on testimony from teachers and employers that the child has met the required skills expected for graduation, with writing samples accepted.

“We will read and respond immediately to each appeal,” read the memo from deputy commissioner Willa Spicer.

Ryan, the Lindenwold teacher, started working on the appeal yesterday with the student in question. In Lindenwold only since April, the student had attended five high schools in four years, and Ryan said she placed calls to a previous school in Florida and another in Pennsylvania to get his transcripts and any work samples. She contacted an employer to attest to his work ethic and skills.

“And we had him write an essay today,” she said. “Initially we asked him to write about wrestling, the thrill of the match, things like that. But he didn’t write about wrestling. He wrote about this morning.”