Op-Ed: Putting New Jersey’s High School Diplomas to the Test

Stan Karp | July 29, 2013 | Opinion
What will Common Core exams mean for the state's graduation policies?

standardized test
There were more than 100,000 ninth-graders in New Jersey public schools this past year, and they all had one thing in common: None of them knows what they have to do to graduate.

While the state’s new teacher evaluation system is grabbing most of the attention, coming changes in state testing policies may have an even more dramatic impact. New and harder tests are on the way, and the bar for a high school diploma is about to become a moving target.

According to the NJ Department of Education, the state’s current high school graduation tests – the High School Proficiency Assessment and the Alternative High School Assessment – are scheduled for elimination when the class of 2015 graduates. Students who were freshmen this past school year — the graduating class of 2016 — will be the first to face new tests aligned with the Common Core standards.

These new tests are being created by the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a multi-state consortium that received $186 million from the federal government to develop new Common Core assessments. New Jersey is a “governing member” of PARCC, which means it has a major role in deciding how the PARCC assessments will be used. Beginning in the spring of 2015, PARCC tests in language arts and math will replace the NJASK, currently given in grades 3-8, and new PARCC tests will be given annually to 11th-graders and eventually 9th- and 10th-graders as well.

By all accounts, the new tests will be more difficult than existing exams. States that have piloted early versions have seen proficiency rates drop sharply.

Charlotte Danielson, a highly-regarded mainstream education authority whose teacher evaluation methods are used in more than half of New Jersey school districts, told Education Week: “I’m concerned that we may be headed for a train wreck there. The test items I’ve seen that have been released so far are extremely challenging. If I had to take a test that was entirely comprised of items like that, I’m not sure that I would pass it—and I’ve got a bunch of degrees. So I do worry that in some schools we’ll have 80 percent or some large number of students failing.”

What this means for New Jersey students is not yet clear. The state’s current graduation statute requires an 11th-grade test in language arts and math that sets “a minimum requirement for high school graduation.”

It also requires that any senior who has not passed the graduation test, “but who has met all the credit, curriculum and attendance requirements shall be eligible for a comprehensive assessment of said proficiencies utilizing techniques and instruments other than standardized tests.”

As a New Jersey high school teacher for 30 years, I saw this statute give rise to an alphabet soup of state exams:

+1981 — Minimum Basic Skills Test (MBS)

+1983 — High School Proficiency Test 9 (HSPT9)

+1988 — High School Proficiency Test 11 (HSPT11)

+2002 — High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA)

+1991 — Special Review Assessment (opened to all/expanded access)

+2010 — Alternative High School Assessment

Each successive test promised and failed to ensure that New Jersey high school graduates would be well prepared for college, careers and citizenship, something standardized tests are ill-suited to do.

In fact there is little evidence that an exit testing policy leads to better prepared graduates, improved college participation or completion rates, or benefits to a state’s economy. Less than half the states have high stakes graduation exams, and several that did recently ended them. A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that “challenging standards-based exams reduce graduation and increase incarceration rates.” The study found no corresponding positive effects on employment or earnings.

Current graduation tests don’t reliably measure what they pretend to measure (“intelligence,” “academic ability,” “college readiness”), and they don’t measure at all qualities all high school graduates should have (responsibility, resilience, critical thinking ability, empathy). The new tests are not likely to be much better. They must be given over computer networks many schools don’t have and will still mainly consist of multiple choice questions that assess a narrow range of skills and curricula.

Moreover, the entire country just finished a 10-year national experiment in the misuse and overuse of standardized testing called No Child Left Behind.

NCLB was a dismal failure in raising academic performance or narrowing gaps in opportunity and outcomes. But its over-reliance on mandated testing did succeed in creating a narrative of school failure that undermined support for public education and led to a decade of bad policy in the name of reform. We need to avoid a similar policy-made debacle with the onset of the PARCC exams.

This won’t be easy, especially because the PARCC tests will arrive with a pre-determined “cut score,” or passing level, reflecting a consensus of its member states about what constitutes “college and career readiness.” The consortium has already defined five “performance levels” (described here), with level four deemed “college and career ready.” Eventually that level will be linked to a specific test score on the new exams. Those who reach it will be labeled “college and career ready;” those who don’t will be labeled something else.

If New Jersey adopts PARCC’s “college and career ready” score as the threshold for high school graduation, thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, of students will not get a diploma, even if they pass all their courses and meet all other requirements. If the State adopts some other score on the PARCC tests as the graduation requirement, it will need to explain why, and what the basis for that standard is.

NJ has tiptoed up to this chasm before and backed away. In the summer of 2010, the State Board of Education reviewed results of Biology and Algebra tests the Department of Education had been piloting for several years. But when it came time to set a passing “cut score” the State Board concluded that as many as 50,000 students could fail, a politically unpalatable result. Plans to make the Algebra and Biology exams a graduation requirement were scrapped, at least temporarily, along with plans to create a battery of tests for other subjects.

But now the Department’s commitment to PARCC and Common Core are bringing New Jersey back to the same precipice. The question once again is, who is at risk of going over the cliff?

With more than 100,000 young people between the ages of 18 and 24 out of school and out of work, fewer graduates and more dropouts are the last things New Jersey needs. But the transition to new exams also offers an opportunity to sever the unreliable link between high stakes tests and high school diplomas and to adopt more effective and more equitable assessment policies.

We do need good assessments in education, but we don’t need state-mandated high school exit tests, and this is the perfect opportunity to phase them out. Governor Christie’s own College and Career Readiness Task Force proposed eliminating the link between the new exams and high school diplomas during a multi-year phase in of the PARCC exams.

Instead, the Task Force recommended reporting the scores on student transcripts without graduation penalties. This would significantly reduce the stakes attached to the tests, and still make results available for whatever relevant data they provide. Such a policy would be light years better than pushing thousands of students out of school with no diploma.

The “canaries in the coal mine” for this latest testing experiment are the 10,000-15,000 students who use the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA) each year to meet state graduation standards (including as many as two-thirds of the state’s English learners). That door to a diploma is due to close completely after 2015, when AHSA is scheduled for elimination. Both simple fairness and New Jersey’s statutory requirement for an alternative assessment using “instruments other than standardized tests” argue for a transition period to develop new multiple pathways that keep New Jersey’s graduation rates high.

PARCC’s hurried timeline is also a problem. Previous transitions to new exams required several years of “due notice” testing to make families, students and educators aware of new expectations. Time was needed for schools to align instruction with the material being tested to make sure students had an opportunity to learn it (a standard called “curricular validity”).

The PARCC tests are not yet finalized and are already running into design and implementation issues that have some states pulling out of the consortium. Also, as Commissioner Chris Cerf acknowledged just a few months ago, the Common Core standards, “have not yet been fully put into place” in school districts across the state. The fact that the new tests will also be used to evaluate teachers—a purpose for which they are neither designed nor reliable—adds another layer of complications.

Yet the department’s timeline calls for field testing the PARCC exams during the coming school year, followed by “full implementation” in spring 2015. The first full results for these unseen and unproven tests won’t be available until the summer of 2015—after they’ve been given to all juniors. Only then will the implications of various cut scores become visible.

When PARCC results are finally available, they should be examined in a public, transparent process before any policy decisions are made. As the Governor’s Task Force proposed, there should be several years of results before any attempt is made at standard setting. There is no credible way these tests can be used to make up and down decisions about who graduates in June 2016 as the department’s current timeline suggests.

Given these multiple moving pieces, New Jersey students and families would best be served by one of two options: an extension of existing high school assessments for all current secondary students, including next September’s incoming freshmen, or, even better, a phase-out of the graduation exit test requirement with the arrival of the PARCC exams in 2015.

This would give New Jersey a chance to kick the high-stakes testing habits that set schools and students up for failure, and instead shift attention to the real task of providing the resources and supports schools and students need to actually meet the high expectations we say we have for them.