NJ Tries to Address Questions, Concerns About Alternate Routes to Diploma

John Mooney | October 14, 2014 | Education
Minimum score on SAT, appeals process to demonstrate proficiency will be among possible paths to graduation

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For all the debate over the New Jersey’s planned use of new state tests for high school graduation, questions have also arisen over how other proposed paths to earning a diploma — including a minimum SAT score and an already existing but little-used appeals process – will actually work.

The Christie administration this month informed public school districts that as the state starts up its new PARCC tests (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career), students for the next three years will have options for meeting graduation requirements.

Passing at least one of the three high school PARCC tests, in language arts or math, will likely be the main gateway, but the administration is acknowledging that thousands of students each year will probably need the chance to qualify in other ways.

Chief among them will be minimum scores on a variety of college entrance tests that are already being taken by four out of five graduates. On the two most prominent tests, the state will set a benchmark of 400 out of a maximum of 800 on the SAT or a 16 out of 36 on the ACT.

College placement tests such as the Accuplacer will also qualify, and last week, the state Department of Education further expanded the list and said students could even qualify with a minimum score on the PSAT, a test given as preparation for the SAT. That minimum score has not yet been established, officials said.

“We’re working to expand the number of substitute assessments to help manage the process so as to be as successful as possible,” said Bari Erlichson, the assistant state commissioner overseeing the process.

The state has been issuing a stream of information to districts to address questions and criticisms of the new process, including from those who accuse the state of reneging on its earlier pledge to not require the PARCC tests for graduation in its initial years.

State officials continue to contend that passing PARCC is not being required, given the other options, and they last week issued a third memo to districts to further clarify the process and try to assuage any fears.

“The idea in this transition is not to disadvantage children who are in the middle of high school and may not have been used to the rigor of the Common Core,” Erlichson said in an interview. “We are hoping to hold harmless these students during a period of change.”

For those who fall short of the minimum SAT or ACT scores or don’t take those tests at all, the department will expand its current Portfolio Appeals process, which was already available as a last resort for students who failed one or both sections of the previous High School Proficiency Assessment.

In individualized reviews that go school by school, student by student, the process allows districts to show that their students met the graduation standards through their coursework or other non-assessment means.

The current appeals process has been in place since the state changed its alternative testing for the HSPA in 2010, and last year, it saw 1,566 applications, more than 1,000 of them for math alone.

Erlichson estimated there could be five to 10 times that number of appeals in the first years of PARCC – or up to one out of 10 prospective graduates.

She said none of this vetting will begin until next fall, after the scores come back from the first round of the PARCC tests administered in the spring to the current ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders.

By that time, many students will have also taken the SATs or other college tests.

As for how difficult is to score 400 out of a perfect 800 on language arts and math sections of the SATs — the state’s mean score last year was 499 in language arts and 522 in math. Almost 15,000 students scored below 400 in language arts, and 11,000 scored below 400 in math.

For next year’s seniors who are still not qualifying, the appeals process will start soon after that, Erlichson said.

When asked whether the state education department has enough staff to handle a possible surge in appeals, Erlichson said staff already handled a similar number in 2010 in the first year of the process — and that was over a three-week span.

“Now, we’ll have over seven months,” she said.

Erlichson downplayed any concerns about the cost of taking the SATs or other college tests, saying that 22 percent of New Jersey students who take the test qualify for income-based waivers from the College Board.

She said the state will not provide additional funding, but noted that a few districts — including the state-operated Newark schools — already pay for their students to take the college exams.