AHSA Pass Rates Rise, but Thousands of Diplomas Remain at Risk

Schundler cites improvements before Senate committee, though some members express continued concern over controversial exam

The numbers have improved significantly, but there are still as many as 4,500 high school seniors statewide who might not get their diplomas this month after failing the state’s controversial exit exam, the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA).

In Camden, it’s more than 80 students. In Newark, it’s close to 250. Toms River still has at least a dozen students missing on at least one test. In Hamilton Township, it’s close to 20 students.

State Education Commissioner Bret Schundler outlined the numbers before the Senate education committee yesterday, as he was called in to address the high AHSA failure rate.

The AHSA is an open-ended test given to students who fail the more standardized High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA). Its scoring was revamped this year, but the state this spring still saw a dramatic spike in the number of students unable to pass the AHSA either.

April Scores Show Rise

The news has improved somewhat for Schundler and his staff, however, as the state continues to revise the rules to help students get over the top. Scores from the April round of the AHSA came in this week, and Schundler said there was a significant rise in the numbers passing since the first exam in January.

With a total of 10,800 students taking the AHSA this year, the pass rate is now up to about 49% in math and 37% in language arts. Factoring in those who may have passed the HSPA’s last administration, Schundler estimated that about 4,500 are still falling short.

“That’s my best guess at this point,” he told the committee. “And it could be as much as 1,000 less than that. The bottom line is there is still a large number who haven’t passed, but it’s a lot fewer than last Friday.”

The passing rates were far higher in April than in January, when just 33% passed in math and only 10% in language arts.

Close to 500 Newark students had taken the April AHSA, for instance, and close to 90% passed the math section. Only about half passed the writing section, leaving the high number still on the bubble.

Still, Schundler cited the progress at Newark’s Central High School, where 22 of 23 students passed all four math sections.

“What that says to me at Central High School is they realized they needed to work with these students to polish their math skills,” he said. “They focused on helping them and they were successful.”

Appeals, Accommodations and Uncertainty

But Schundler also detailed how the state has added several layers of accommodations and supports to help those students still falling short.

For example, an unprecedented appeals process allows students to provide portfolios of their work and testimonies from teachers and employers. Students with at least 400 on the corresponding SAT or 16 on the ACT could also now get their diploma without passing the exit exam.

Schundler said the state and school districts would also provide tutoring and other classes – some of them online – to help the students prepare for one more round of the AHSA in August.

“I think there will be a significant number more passing in August, just as we saw the increase between January and April,” Schundler said.

That didn’t save him from some admonishment from the Senate committee, however, with members continuing to question why the revamped exam wasn’t phased in or tested itself before thousands of students were put in sudden in trouble of not graduating.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the committee’s chairwoman, will be the commencement speaker at Newark’s Technology High School, and she said she has heard from parents and educators across the city about the uncertainty they now face.

“The uncertainty comes at the end of the school year, and the rules of the game were changed,” she said. “We’re not looking for an easy way out for these students, we want the most qualified students, but to put these limits in place at such a late date, well, a lot of families are not at ease.”