Alternative Testing? Not Under Christie’s Change for High School Graduation

John Mooney | May 8, 2012 | Education
Governor's plans for testing will leave out fall-back test, but appeal process will survive

As the Christie administration launches new high-stakes testing for New Jersey’s high school students, acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said yesterday that he intends to continue an appeals process that last year was the last resort for roughly 1,000 students to graduate.

“I do think there should be a safety valve for those who are going through special challenges,” Cerf said in an interview.

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But Cerf reiterated that the alternative testing now in place for thousands more students who fail the state’s high school test will be discontinued.

“I don’t believe we should have something that is giving an unrealistic and inaccurate measure of where a child stands,” he said.

The fate of the alternative test and the appeals process has been in question since Gov. Chris Christie last week announced a new system that would require students to pass a battery of end-of-year tests to graduate, starting in 2016.

The new testing in 9th, 10th and 11th grades would replace the current High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), a comprehensive test given for the past two decades to 11th grade students in language arts and math.

But the question has been what happens to the thousands of students who now do not pass the new tests, even if they complete all the other requirements for graduation.

For those students, they now take an alternative test aptly named the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA), which provides more time and more performance-based tasks to show one’s proficiency. If they fail that, students can enter an appeals process with the state to prove they are still worthy of a diploma.

Last year, 14.5 percent of all graduating students, or about 13,400, received their diploma by either having passed the AHSA or making it through the appeals process, according to the state.

Having failed that, nearly 2,000 students appealed in math and 840 in language arts, with roughly two-thirds in each category winning those appeals, according to numbers released by the state yesterday. The appeals process for this year’s graduating class is just beginning, state officials announced yesterday, with the applications due by the end of the month.

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But state officials stressed that the AHSA will be phased out as the HSPA is ramped down over the next four years. In the meantime, both will continue to be developed and scored through an extension of the contract with Measurement Inc., a North Carolina testing company, officials said.

Cerf said while the appeals process is needed for the most extreme cases, the AHSA is not of a significant rigor to show a student was “college and career ready.” To retain it, “would defeat the purpose of the whole system,” he said.

In new data released over the last week, as many as half of the students in districts like Camden, Pleasantville and Lakewood have needed the alternative testing and appeals to graduate.

A few charter schools have also relied heavily on the AHSA, They include the Emily Fisher Charter School in Trenton, which the state is now seeking to close, and more-praised charter schools such as LEAP Academy Charter Schools in Camden and the Hoboken Charter School.

In contrast, the state’s wealthiest communities dominate the list of schools relying the least on AHSA and appeals, where for instance just 1.6 percent of Millburn High School graduates needed the AHSA or 1.3 percent at North Highlands Regional High Schools in Bergen County.